One time when I was younger, we raced across the Charles de Gaulle airport to catch a last-minute flight, and Dad didn’t relax until the plane was off the ground, I asked him point blank what he was running from, and he looked at me like I’d just pulled the pin out of a grenade. For a second I was scared he might actually tell me the truth. Then he said, “Carter, it’s nothing.” As if “nothing” were the most terrible thing in the world.
After that, I decided maybe it was better not to ask questions.
My grandparents, the Fausts, live in a housing development near Canary Wharf, right on the banks of the River Thames. The taxi let us off at the curb, and my dad asked the driver to wait.
We were halfway up the walk when Dad froze. He turned and looked behind us.
“What?” I asked.
Then I saw the man in the trench coat. He was across the street, leaning against a big dead tree. He was barrel shaped, with skin the color of roasted coffee. His coat and black pinstriped suit looked expensive. He had long braided hair and wore a black fedora pulled down low over his dark round glasses. He reminded me of a jazz musician, the kind my dad would always drag me to see in concert. Even though I couldn’t see his eyes, I got the impression he was watching us. He might’ve been an old friend or colleague of Dad’s. No matter where we went, Dad was always running into people he knew. But it did seem strange that the guy was waiting here, outside my grandparents’. And he didn’t look happy.
“Carter,” my dad said, “go on ahead.”
“Get your sister. I’ll meet you back at the taxi.”
He crossed the street toward the man in the trench coat, which left me with two choices: follow my dad and see what was going on, or do what I was told.
I decided on the slightly less dangerous path. I went to retrieve my sister.
Before I could even knock, Sadie opened the door.
“Late as usual,” she said.
She was holding her cat, Muffin, who’d been a “going away” gift from Dad six years before. Muffin never seemed to get older or bigger. She had fuzzy yellow-and-black fur like a miniature leopard, alert yellow eyes, and pointy ears that were too tall for her head. A silver Egyptian pendant dangled from her collar. She didn’t look anything like a muffin, but Sadie had been little when she named her, so I guess you have to cut her some slack.
Sadie hadn’t changed much either since last summer.
[As I’m recording this, she’s standing next to me, glaring, so I’d better be careful how I describe her.]
You would never guess she’s my sister. First of all, she’d been living in England so long, she has a British accent. Second, she takes after our mom, who was white, so Sadie’s skin is much lighter than mine. She has straight caramel-colored hair, not exactly blond but not brown, which she usually dyes with streaks of bright colors. That day it had red streaks down the left side. Her eyes are blue. I’m serious. Blue eyes, just like our mom’s. She’s only twelve, but she’s exactly as tall as me, which is really annoying. She was chewing gum as usual, dressed for her day out with Dad in battered jeans, a leather jacket, and combat boots, like she was going to a concert and was hoping to stomp on some people. She had headphones dangling around her neck in case we bored her.
[Okay, she didn’t hit me, so I guess I did an okay job of describing her.]
“Our plane was late,” I told her.
She popped a bubble, rubbed Muffin’s head, and tossed the cat inside. “Gran, going out!”
From somewhere in the house, Grandma Faust said something I couldn’t make out, probably “Don’t let them in!”
Sadie closed the door and regarded me as if I were a dead mouse her cat had just dragged in. “So, here you are again.”
“Come on, then.” She sighed. “Let’s get on with it.”
That’s the way she was. No “Hi, how you been the last six months? So glad to see you!” or anything. But that was okay with me. When you only see each other twice a year, it’s like you’re distant cousins rather than siblings. We had absolutely nothing in common except our parents.
We trudged down the steps. I was thinking how she smelled like a combination of old people’s house and bubble gum when she stopped so abruptly, I ran into her.
“Who’s that?” she asked.
I’d almost forgotten about the dude in the trench coat. He and my dad were standing across the street next to the big tree, having what looked like a serious argument. Dad’s back was turned so I couldn’t see his face, but he gestured with his hands like he does when he’s agitated. The other guy scowled and shook his head.
“Dunno,” I said. “He was there when we pulled up.”
“He looks familiar.” Sadie frowned like she was trying to remember. “Come on.”
“Dad wants us to wait in the cab,” I said, even though I knew it was no use. Sadie was already on the move.
Instead of going straight across the street, she dashed up the sidewalk for half a block, ducking behind cars, then crossed to the opposite side and crouched under a low stone wall. She started sneaking toward our dad. I didn’t have much choice but to follow her example, even though it made me feel kind of stupid.
“Six years in England,” I muttered, “and she thinks she’s James Bond.”
Sadie swatted me without looking back and kept creeping forward.
A couple more steps and we were right behind the big dead tree. I could hear my dad on the other side, saying, “-have to, Amos. You know it’s the right thing.”
“No,” said the other man, who must’ve been Amos. His voice was deep and even-very insistent. His accent was American. “If I don’t stop you, Julius, they will. The Per Ankh is shadowing you.”
Sadie turned to me and mouthed the words “Per what?”
I shook my head, just as mystified. “Let’s get out of here,” I whispered, because I figured we’d be spotted any minute and get in serious trouble. Sadie, of course, ignored me.
“They don’t know my plan,” my father was saying. “By the time they figure it out-”
“And the children?” Amos asked. The hairs stood up on the back of my neck. “What about them?”
“I’ve made arrangements to protect them,” my dad said. “Besides, if I don’t do this, we’re all in danger. Now, back off.”
“I can’t, Julius.”
“Then it’s a duel you want?” Dad’s tone turned deadly serious. “You never could beat me, Amos.”
I hadn’t seen my dad get violent since the Great Spatula Incident, and I wasn’t anxious to see a repeat of that, but the two men seemed to be edging toward a fight.
Before I could react, Sadie popped up and shouted, “Dad!”
He looked surprised when she tackle-hugged him, but not nearly as surprised as the other guy, Amos. He backed up so quickly, he tripped over his own trench coat.
He’d taken off his glasses. I couldn’t help thinking that Sadie was right. He did look familiar-like a very distant memory.
“I-I must be going,” he said. He straightened his fedora and lumbered down the road.
Our dad watched him go. He kept one arm protectively around Sadie and one hand inside the workbag slung over his shoulder. Finally, when Amos disappeared around the corner, Dad relaxed. He took his hand out of the bag and smiled at Sadie. “Hello, sweetheart.”
Sadie pushed away from him and crossed her arms. “Oh, now it’s sweetheart, is it? You’re late. Visitation Day’s nearly over! And what was that about? Who’s Amos, and what’s the Per Ankh?”
Dad stiffened. He glanced at me like he was wondering how much we’d overheard.
“It’s nothing,” he said, trying to sound upbeat. “I have a wonderful evening planned. Who’d like a private tour of the British Museum?”