The pandora room, p.1
The Pandora Room, page 1
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For Kristina Day.
A woman of courage and character.
I’m deeply indebted to all of the folks who read and loved Ararat, who wanted to see more of Walker as much as I did. My profound thanks to my excellent editor, Michael Homler, as well as to Lauren Jablonski and the entire team at St. Martin’s Press. Gratitude, as always, to my agent, Howard Morhaim, my manager, Peter Donaldson, and to all of the friends and family members who keep me sane when the world is not, or when I go down the creative rabbit hole. Special thanks to Dr. Maria Carlini and to Weston Ochse, for their advice and consultation. Finally, my love always to Connie, who is the reason for everything, and to the three excellent human beings who are our children.
Sophie Durand loved her work, but she didn’t want to die for it. Today the two desires had come into conflict, which would have been unsettling enough on any day but was especially irritating given how otherwise perfect a morning it had been.
A gust of hot wind billowed the awnings of shops and rustled the linen dresses hung out for tourists to peruse as they navigated the narrow market street of Amadiya. Sophie felt beads of sweat run down the small of her back, but she ignored her discomfort, biting into a pear as she meandered, waiting for her colleagues to rejoin her. Despite the locals and a small handful of other tourists, she felt exposed and alone, and her gaze shifted left and right while she mentally calculated methods of self-defense that were close at hand.
She’d noticed the first of the two men twenty minutes earlier, watching her from in front of one of the stalls in the open-air fruit-and-vegetable market. He’d made a small bit of theater, getting the seller to weigh a cluster of grapes, but she’d noticed the way he looked at her. Not with benign curiosity or even lustful appraisal but with disinterest so carefully blank that it caught her attention immediately. There seemed something surreptitious about his lack of expression, and when she caught him looking again, she’d decided to move on from the stall laden with oranges and forego any further fruits and vegetables for this visit. What she’d already acquired would have to be enough.
Nearly ten minutes passed before she’d seen the second man. At first she’d assumed it to be the same person, but then she had realized there were two of these strange men with their mustaches and their sun-bleached linen shirts. They looked so alike they could have been twins whose mother had dressed them.
Tourists, she had told herself. Surely not locals. Their stiffness and their mode of dress set them apart, although something about that observation troubled Sophie. It niggled at the back of her mind, this assumption that they were tourists, but their glancing attentions bothered her more and so she moved on, never mentioning to her two colleagues that she suspected the three of them were being followed.
Paranoia, she thought, and she went about her business. She finished her pear, wrapped the core in a small cloth, and tucked it into the side pocket of her heavy rucksack before slinging it back over her shoulder.
Sophie liked pockets. Her coworkers tended to tease her about the capri-style cargo pants she wore on the job, but she always argued that male designers had historically deprived women of pockets in their clothing, and in her line of work, she wanted as many as she could get.
In one of those pockets, her phone vibrated against her thigh. Barely thinking, she drew it out and glanced at the message on the screen: Are u really going to ignore me? Is that what it’s come to?
Sophie rolled her eyes. She didn’t have time for this nonsense, but she did feel a flash of guilt. With a glance around her, she tapped a quick reply. Just stop, for both our sakes. I’m not coming back to NYC anytime soon.
She kept the phone in her hand for a half minute, expecting a response, but when she glanced at the screen again, there was not even the telltale ellipsis to indicate a reply might be incoming. Sophie felt frustrated for a moment and then realized that maybe she was getting precisely what she asked for.
Exhaling, she slipped her phone back into her pocket and kept moving.
The population of Amadiya consisted of fewer than five thousand souls. Tourists were as common a sight as birds flying overhead, but their numbers were smaller. A few dozen visited each day during the summer, no more than one hundred in the cooler months. It was early June now and getting warmer by the day.
Martin had gone off to the post office, and Lamar had stepped into a shop to see if he could find a little kit to fix his glasses. Sophie realized she’d nearly forgotten one of her vital errands for the day, and she ducked inside a shop to purchase several small jars of tahini that she had promised their cook.
After she’d browsed the little shop and the merchant tallied up the cost of the nuts and figs and bottles of tahini, she glanced up and saw one of the mustache twins standing in front of a rack of various dried, bottled herbs. The man had his back to her, but his hands were motionless. He gazed at the herbs as if trying to understand their purpose, with no evidence that he intended to buy anything at all.
Moments after Sophie exited the shop, the man followed. She glanced back down the market street and saw his partner. They’d done an awful lot of browsing, yet their hands were empty. They had no shopping bags, no backpacks, nothing at all. The first man had apparently not even bought the grapes he had fussed over at the fruit stall. In that moment, she knew she hadn’t been paranoid at all. These men weren’t here for grapes.
Sophie collided with a man on the street. She recoiled as he touched her arm, and her head struck a display of straw shoulder bags hanging beneath a shop awning. She whipped around to face the man, shifting into a defensive posture, right hand clenched into a fist, and only then did she see it was Lamar Curtis.
Lamar cocked his head. “Well, you seem distracted.”
Sophie blinked, the words taking a moment to register. She mustered a polite smile—her business smile. “That’s a good word for it.” Her fist unclenched. “Sorry about that.”
“You want to tell me what just happened?”
Sophie cast a look over her shoulder but now saw no sign of the mustache twins. She shrugged her rucksack to draw Lamar’s attention to it.
“Figs and nuts. Tahini. A small portion of the truffles Dmitri wanted.”
“A happy cook means our bellies will be that much happier,” Lamar said, keeping it light, although he still studied her with cautious appraisal. He tapped his own bag, a heavily laden cloth sack he wore with its strap slung across his chest. “I’ve got apples and pears, a small watermelon, and those apricots you love so much.”
She smiled. “I bought grapes. Some fresh greens and herbs.”
Sophie frowned. “No oranges,” she said quietly. “Where’s Martin?”
“Probably off buying you roses,” Lamar muttered.
Sophie shot him a hard look. “You know it’s not like that. And now’s not the time to hav
“You want to tell me what’s got you so spooked?”
“When we’re in motion,” she said. “Go find Martin and meet me at the edge. No more shopping. I want to get to the car.”
Lamar started to reply, but Sophie set off, leaving him near the awning-covered entrance to a tobacconist’s shop. They were a block from the edge of town, and she crossed that distance as swiftly as she was able without appearing as if she wanted to flee. Her heart galloped along inside her chest, and she knew her face would be flushed—fear had that effect on her—but she did her best to keep her emotions hidden. Sophie had become good at that over the years, for better or worse. She’d had cancer as a child—acute myelogenous leukemia—and had quickly learned that if she put on a happy face, it meant she wouldn’t have to help manage the emotional state of the adults around her. An ugly lesson, and she’d often pondered if that childhood self-preservation had turned her into a selfish adult, but there were days she still felt both the emotional and physical effects of her cancer, so she figured she could not be blamed for still protecting herself. Other people’s emotions were messy and beautiful, but they could also be inconvenient and even dangerous.
Martin’s, for instance. His infatuation with her felt nice, but she’d kept him at a distance. For now.
She willed Lamar to hurry. Martin had gone to get the mail. Normally, a courier would have brought any packages out to the dig later in the week, but the team had been complaining about a lack of fresh fruit for several days, and Sophie had spent so much time in the tunnels that she had decided to take Lamar and Martin with her to Amadiya. She’d needed to clear her head, shake off the psychological cobwebs that came from living a nomadic life, and at first it had worked.
Amadiya might have been something out of a storybook. Most Westerners would have appreciated its unique beauty but never guessed at its significance. Even now, with her pulse still racing, Sophie stood at a low rock wall and looked out across the valley and the mountain range around them, marveling at the tenacity of this little town. Sheer stone cliffs dropped off precipitously on the other side of the low wall, with vibrant green forest far below. The Assyrians had settled on top of this plateau nearly five thousand years before—Five thousand years, she thought—but Sophie and her colleagues believed there had been people here even before that. Never would she have imagined she would come to Amadiya to study something else, but her team wasn’t here for the town. Archaeologists had been studying the place for generations and would continue to do so for generations more. Her job was elsewhere.
The town’s isolation contributed to its beauty. A thousand meters long and half that in width, it had a gentle, integrated community of Muslim Kurds, Christians, and Jews, each of whom could lay claim to a portion of the local history. The minaret of the town’s mosque towered overhead, a handful of tourists navigated narrow market streets, and otherwise people went on with their lives. They lived in Kurdish territory, in northern Iraq, only miles from the Turkish border, a region whose sovereignty was constantly being contested, but to its people, Amadiya was only Amadiya, far from such troubles, alone up on their mountain.
Sophie felt the sun on her face, let the wind blow her hair wild. To anyone passing, she’d look like an ordinary tourist, perhaps a bit weather-beaten and certainly not out to impress anyone with her outfit. Just a woman on vacation. She’d moved to the edge of town because others would be walking its perimeter, mostly locals but certainly the few tourists in town. Out here in the open, she’d be much more visible than in the narrow market street. If anyone were to come after her, there would be witnesses.
Minutes passed as she calmed the hammering of her heart into something like its normal rhythm. Just as she took a deep breath, a voice said her name. She turned, pushing her hair away from her eyes, to find Lamar standing with Martin Jungling. The contrast between the two men had never been starker. Short, often dour Lamar was as dark as tall, lanky Martin was pale, but their demeanor differentiated them even more than their appearance. At thirty-seven, Lamar had established a reputation as a serious historian and an expert on ancient languages. He taught classes at Columbia and the Sorbonne and had published two well-received books. Martin had energy and enthusiasm and a certain charm, but he was a twenty-four-year-old archaeology grad student eager to have his name on something—a discovery, a book, a professional paper, someday a college library.
Sophie liked them both a great deal, but right now Martin looked anxious as a hen in a foxhouse. She could rely on Lamar to stay cool, and that meant the world.
“Are we in danger?” Martin asked a little too loudly.
Sophie smiled, but not for their benefit. “We’re leaving. Did you get the mail?”
Martin patted the leather satchel that hung at his hip. Unshaven, his hair unruly and his clothing rumpled, that satchel made him look as if he were still on a campus somewhere.
She stepped closer to them, looped her arm through Lamar’s as if they were a couple, and smiled at both men. “We’re not in any danger,” she said, and she knew she might be lying. “But we’ve definitely been noticed by people whose attention we don’t want. So we’re—”
Martin started to turn to look back the way they’d come. Lamar patted him on the back with what most would view as an expression of bonhomie.
“Sophie’s talking to you, pal. Keep your eyes on her.”
Martin muttered an apology, struggling to keep himself from scanning their surroundings.
“We’re leaving,” Sophie said again. She and Lamar began walking along the edge of town. As Martin fell in behind them, Sophie glanced back at him. “Anything interesting in the mail?”
Martin looked nervous as hell. He stole a quick glimpse over his shoulder. Sophie and Lamar turned right and began to hurry closer to the center of town. The trio picked up their pace as they passed the end of the market street and moved along a wider road. She thought she caught a quick glimpse of a familiar mustache but tried to play it off as if she hadn’t seen him, and she kept walking.
A bearded, wild-haired hiker flashed them a hang-loose hand signal in greeting as they passed him. His head bobbed as if he moved to music none of them could hear, and Sophie wondered if she imagined the pungent herbal aroma wafting off him. A local man hurried by them with a small hand truck burdened with wooden crates full of potatoes—late for the market.
“Sophie,” Martin began.
“Not yet,” she replied. “Tell me about the post office.”
Martin swore under his breath, but he got the point. As he mentioned a package for the cook and something heavy he thought must be a book, as well as a few old-fashioned letters, the three of them moved quickly through the center of town. Once away from the market street, they encountered fewer and fewer locals. Sophie had no doubt that the two strange men would be following.
Her heart began to race again. As they walked past a shuttered home, lilting music coming from inside, Lamar tried to ask her if she was all right. Sophie kept her gaze fixed on the street ahead of them, ignoring the colorfully garbed generational trio of women who passed by, surrounding a man who might be husband to one, son to another, father to the third.
Finally, they arrived at the small, weedy parking lot where they’d left their dusty Jeep. The cracked and potholed pavement looked as if it had suffered a minor earthquake, and now that it occurred to her, she thought that might be true. This part of the world had done more than its share of suffering over the years. Hell, over the centuries.
Only when they were stowing their bags inside the Jeep did Sophie allow herself to look back the way they’d come.
The mustache twins were there. The two men had stopped a block and a half away to lean against the front of a building and smoke brown-leaf, home-rolled cigarettes. They seemed amused, as if they knew the fear they’d inspired and it gave them pleasure. Sophie had met such men before. They existed in every culture she’d experienced, and she wanted to run them over in t
Instead, she slipped into the driver’s seat, fired up the engine, and tore out of the parking lot before Lamar had even closed the passenger-side door. In the backseat, Martin let out a grunt as her acceleration bumped him about before he’d gotten his long legs settled.
“Sorry,” she said. “But better this bumpy road than being back there with those assholes.”
Martin turned on the rear seat and peered out the back. “Who the hell were those guys?” he asked, his Belgian accent thickening. “You were freaking me out!”
The phrase made her smile in spite of everything. Belgian by birth, American by education, Martin watched too much television whenever he could get a Wi-Fi signal on his laptop.
Sophie glanced in the rearview mirror, but she could only see the men’s legs. At the corner, turning along the switchback road that made its way down the mountain, she looked out her window and saw the smug bastards smoking their nasty cigarettes. One of them raised a hand to wave to her.
Then they were out of sight, and Sophie exhaled.
The job had just gotten more complicated.
Martin had to be bursting at the seams, wanting to plead for answers, but he had learned to tamp down his enthusiasms around her. When he kept his cool, he could be charming as hell. His eyes were a sparkling blue so vivid they reminded her of the famed grotto in Capri, and he had a wonderful laugh, an insightful mind, and he tended to sing to himself while he worked as if he’d forgotten that anyone around him could hear. Some members of the team complained, but most of them found the habit entertaining, even joining in if they knew the lyrics. On days that felt more like drudgery than discovery, Martin made the hours more bearable. If he hadn’t been so much younger, not to mention her subordinate, Sophie might have surprised him with a quick seduction, just for a night. But the way he often looked at her, the way he spoke to her, not flirting but yearning, she knew that if she ever crossed that line, he wouldn’t want it to be a onetime thing, which was even more reason not to allow herself to be tempted.
by Christopher Golden / Horror / Science Fiction & Fantasy have rating 4 out of 5 / Based on32 votes