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WARSAW: THE BELL TOWER WAITING ROOM
The Stare Miasto district of Warsaw is an illusion. It appears to be centuries old, with buildings dating back to the 1200s and a city wall erected to fend off the Mongol hordes. But the district's venerable appearance is false. Stare Miasto was leveled during World War II--not a stone left standing--and everything you see is a twentieth-century reproduction made to look aged using rubble that was left after Hitler and Stalin pounded the city into ruin.
In other words, Stare Miasto is a counterfeit antique: well built and lovely, but fake. I know about counterfeits. I've seen many. My name is Lara Croft, and I collect old things.
It was December--a clear cold night with the snow ankle deep. Warsaw's streets were empty, except for a few late stragglers whose breaths steamed ghostlike into the air. Their heads were probably full of Christmas: presents to buy, food to cook, decorations to string over the hearth. My thoughts, however, were elsewhere. I'd been called to Warsaw by a friend . . . and my friend was in trouble.
His name was Reuben Baptiste: born in Trinidad, educated at Cambridge, and a useful fellow for someone in my line of work. Reuben was a freelance research assistant. He had a knack for finding exactly the right paragraph in exactly the right book--often in dusty libraries where the books were uncatalogued and stacked in random heaps on the shelves. Reuben had a good eye for deciphering faded hieroglyphics and for spotting inscriptions so faint they were almost invisible. Above all, he could talk to people. He could talk to scientists of the Royal Society in their clubs off Piccadilly; he could talk to native shamans as they sat around smoky campfires; he could talk to people in rest homes and coax out the story of how they'd once seen something odd fifty years ago while strolling beside the Nile.
Of course, Reuben had his shortcomings--all his knowledge came from books and conversation, not from hands-on work in the field. He'd never entered an ancient tomb or even visited an archaeological dig. Still, he was excellent at what he did. Whenever I was too busy to do such chores myself, I'd hire Reuben to track down information for me. He, in turn, always sent a heads-up my way if he came across something of interest . . . so when he telephoned to say, "Drop everything and meet me in Warsaw," I hopped the first plane from Heathrow.
Before leaving, I did take a moment to ask Reuben what he'd found. He said he couldn't tell me till he got permission from his current employer . . . and, no, he couldn't say who that was. But if everything worked out, this unknown employer would be eager to sponsor me on a chance-of-a-lifetime expedition, and I'd be eager to go.
That's all Reuben would say. I didn't press for details. One reason I valued Reuben was that he never divulged the secrets of those he worked for.
When Reuben first called me, we'd arranged to meet at the Bristol, Warsaw's most exclusive hotel, so distinguished it's listed as a Polish national monument. Just after my flight landed, however--while I was queued up at customs, moving at a snail's pace because Ok(ecie airport was in the middle of a high security alert--I checked my messages and found a voice mail from Reuben, saying, "Forget the Bristol; meet me at Dr. Jacek's."
His voice sounded bad: breathless with pain. I pushed my way through customs with unladylike haste.
Dr. Jacek's clinic lay on the edge of Stare Miasto, housed inside what was once the Church of St. Anthony the Great. The church was a victim of recent history. Much had changed when Poland won its independence from the Communist bloc, and one of those changes was a gradual outflow of people from Warsaw's inner city into new surrounding suburbs. Fewer residents meant smaller congregations . . . until finally the bishop had to close several lesser-used churches. One church was converted into insurance offices; one became an experimental theater; and the former Church of St. Anthony the Great--unsanctified with all appropriate rituals--was sold to Dr. Stanislaw Jacek for use as a private clinic.
Jacek's wasn't your usual medical center. It was one of those solid-steel-doorway places you can find in any major city if you follow a trade like mine: a clinic where no one asks awkward questions about bullet wounds and where they always carry antidotes for cobra venom or curare. Strange creatures prowl the back streets of Warsaw--everything from bioengineered horrors to biblical monstrosities--and the victims usually end up at Jacek's. Often, patients are sent discreetly from more conventional hospitals: places that prefer not to handle patients whose flesh is mutating into acidic goo.
But when I arrived, the place seemed quiet. I knocked on the steel door--three quick knocks, two slow, two more quick--and was admitted by a motherly receptionist with a heavily armed doorman behind her. He looked ready to shoot me with a Heckler & Koch MP5 A5 submachine gun, until the receptionist gave him a scolding little slap. "Ach, this is Lara. She's a friend." Apparently, however, I wasn't enough of a friend to be allowed into the clinic fully armed. The receptionist said, "Sorry, no exceptions," as the doorman plucked my pistols from their holsters and locked them in an imposing metal vault behind his desk. I noticed several other guns in there before he closed the vault door.
"Lots of patients tonight?" I asked as I hung my winter jacket on a coat stand.
"Just your friend Reuben," the receptionist said. "He told us to expect you. Go up to the private waiting room; he'll join you as soon as the doctor finishes bandaging him."
"Bandaging him? What happened?" I moved toward the corridor that I knew led to the treatment rooms, but the doorman blocked my way. He didn't actually point his gun at me, but he tightened his grip on it.
"Please," the receptionist said. "Just wait. It won't be long. Then your friend can tell you whatever he wants you to know."
She pointed toward a door that led to a stone-lined stairwell. Grudgingly, I started up the steps.
The private waiting room was set aside for people who'd accept a little inconvenience in exchange for staying out of sight of other visitors. It lay halfway up the church's bell tower: a shabby room with shabby furniture . . . but then, everything at Jacek's had an air of cheapness. Dr. J. enjoyed being a penny-pinching old curmudgeon.
Despite the ragged decor, I liked the room. This level of the tower had tall glass windows on all four sides, giving splendid views of Stare Miasto under its burden of snow, plus the Vistula River, black and not yet frozen over, rolling frigidly off to the east. When I first arrived, the room was empty; I passed several minutes gazing out onto the city, idly plotting escape routes across the rooftops. Soon, though, I heard footsteps coming slowly, painfully, up the stairs.
I turned. Reuben Baptiste appeared in the doorway. He tossed me a cheerful wave, then nearly fell over from the effort. A moment later, he toppled into a nearby chair and sat there panting. He looked dreadful. Reuben's skin was normally a rich Caribbean brown, but now it resembled half-melted wax. I could see a greater quantity of skin than usual--Reuben's shirt was in tatters, and the tatters were burned around the edges.
Much of Reuben's face was smeared with clear ointment, no doubt applied by Dr. Jacek. Jacek had also taped thick white dressings on Reuben's left side: one at the front and one at the back. I'd worn similar bandages a few years earlier when a bullet had passed in and out of my body, breaking two ribs on its way through. Fortunately, that shot did no permanent damage to my internal organs. I was afraid Reuben hadn't been so lucky--he breathed with short little gasps as if his lungs couldn't get enough oxygen. Still, if Reuben had been seriously injured, he'd be down in Jacek's operating room, not staggering up to meet me. Reuben was still able to walk, and that was a good sign . . . I hoped.
One other detail: Reuben had a stainless steel attache case handcuffed to his left wrist. The case showed a swath of charred smudges across its metal surface.
"Lara," he wheezed. "Glad you're here."
I went and crouched by his side. "Who did this to you, Reuben?"
I narrowed my eyes. "Don't know or can't say?"
"Don't know," he repeated.
"Can't even make a guess?"
"Really, truly, Lara, I don't know what's going on." He smiled weakly. "You're the one who people try to kill. Me, I'm harmless."
"Next you're going to say, Honest to gosh, Lara, it can't possibly be related to this metal thingy locked on my wrist."
He shifted his eyes away. "I can't talk about that--it's confidential. I don't give away your secrets when I'm working for you."
"At least tell me what happened. How did you get so banged up?"
Reuben let his head slump back against the chair. "When I phoned you," he said, "I wasn't in Warsaw. I was in Athens."
"What were you doing in Athens?"
"I can't tell you till my employer gives the okay. But it's big, Lara. It's--" His voice broke off. He winced in pain.
"Broken ribs?" I asked.
"Just one. At least that's what Dr. Jacek says. Feels like I've snapped half a dozen." Reuben took some quick tortured breaths. "Anyway, after I called you, I caught a flight here. Arrived at Ok(ecie a couple hours ago. Nothing out of the ordinary till I got to the rental car office. I'd made arrangements several days earlier so they'd have a car waiting . . ."
I tsked my tongue. "Reuben, you should know better. Giving several days' notice of where and when you'd be? A person with enemies can't take such risks."
Reuben made a face. "I didn't realize I had enemies." He tried to breathe, then flinched at what must have been another jab from his broken rib. After swallowing the pain, he continued. "The rent-a-car agency had two people in the office: a kid, maybe nineteen, and an older fellow who seemed on edge. In retrospect, I realize the older guy was acting suspicious--he shooed other customers out the door and even snapped, 'No cars! We have no more cars!' I should have noticed he was clearing the office of everybody but me. I was just so tired and jet-lagged . . . Oh, don't scowl, Lara, I know that's no excuse. Anyway, the older man gave me the keys to a car and told me where it was parked; but the kid volunteered to fetch the car for me. I'd, uhh . . . well . . . my current employer has deep pockets and gives me a huge expense account, so I'd splurged on something fast, sleek, and sporty. A Lamborghini Diablo."
My eyebrows went up. "You can rent a Lamborghini Diablo?" Dear, oh dear, whatever happened to exclusivity? I resolved to sell my own Diablo before people thought I'd gone bargain hunting at Hertz.
"You can get good cars if you call far enough ahead," Reuben said. "I could see the kid wanted a chance behind the wheel, even if he only drove it in from the car park. The older guy said no, no, no, but I decided to let the kid have a thrill. I handed him the keys and said, 'Be my guest.' " Reuben sighed and lowered his eyes. "I thought I was doing the kid a favor."
It wasn't hard to guess what had happened next. I said, "Go on."
"The kid went to get the car. The older guy had a strange look on his face. After a few seconds, he went into the back room--didn't say a word, just left. I stood at the window of the car company's office--they had this big plate-glass window overlooking the lot--and I watched the kid drive up. Beautiful red sports car . . ." Reuben shook his head sadly. "At the last second, I noticed a rack of free road maps on the side wall of the office. I went to grab a map of Warsaw in case I needed it . . ."
"Which," I said, "is what saved your life."
He nodded. "The car blew up right outside the office. If I'd been standing at the window, flying glass would have cut me to shreds."
Reuben fell silent, brooding. I wanted to reassure him--pat his shoulder or even give him a hug, tell him I understood--but I couldn't force myself past the restraint of my upbringing. Lara, dear, one mustn't intrude. However much one feels, one really mustn't intrude. Maybe Reuben preferred it that way: both of us pretending he wasn't on the verge of tears. That "kid" who'd wanted to drive a Lamborghini had died in Reuben's place. Survivor guilt is cruel. There's no reason to blame yourself for a death that's not your fault . . . yet deep in your soul dwells a sense of obligation when the bullet meant for you hits somebody else. You've incurred a debt you can never repay.
"It's not like the movies," Reuben murmured. "When a car explodes. It's not a dramatic burst of fire with stuntmen jumping up off trampolines to simulate the force of the blast."
He glanced at me angrily . . . but something in my face must have told him I did know what it was to endure an explosion. To feel the wall of heat slam into you: burning your eyes dry, popping your eardrums, pounding your body like a thousand simultaneous punches, knocking you off your feet and throwing you backward with a fire-driven force so far beyond mere human strength that the humiliation is almost as excruciating as the moment of impact.
Then for a time, there's nothing. Even if you're conscious, you can't see, hear, or feel. Your senses are numb for a tiny grace period as your brain seeks to deal with what's happened. Suddenly everything floods into awareness: light if your eyes haven't been burned out of their sockets, sound if there's anything left of your eardrums, and a lot--a lot--of pain.
"I blacked out for a while," Reuben said. "I don't know how long. When I woke, I felt burned head to toe . . . lying in a heap against the wall, maps littered around me, some of them smoldering . . . and the older guy from the rent-a-car agency was bending over me. I thought he was trying to help--giving me first aid. Then I saw he had a butcher's knife the size of a machete. He was assessing my wrist, trying to decide the best way to cut off my hand."