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Authors: Lev Grossman

Codex (38 page)

BOOK: Codex
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“I'm in my apartment.” He lay back down. “You called me here.”

“You're right. My God, I'm losing my grip. Is your girlfriend there?”

“Is who here?”

“‘Is who here?'” She mimicked him and laughed again, not quite as pleasantly. “I meant Margaret. Is she there with you?”

“She's not—” He sighed. Never mind, whatever. “No. I'm here alone.”

“What are you going to do now?”

“I don't know.” It came out sounding more plaintive than he meant it to, but it was true. So much had happened yesterday that he hadn't even thought it through yet. “You tell me. Should I come to England?”

After what sounded like a moment of mental calculation, she replied:

“Yes. Why not.”

“But isn't that what you wanted?”

He was guessing now, taking stabs in the dark.

“Of course it is,” she said soothingly. “How soon can you come?”

“I already have a flight booked, in a couple of days—E & H is flying me over. Hang on a second and I'll get the flight times.”

“A couple of days? I need it sooner than that.”

“Well, I suppose I could try to find an earlier flight.”

“Never mind,” she said brusquely, “I'll take care of it.”

The playful, girlish tone was gone again, replaced by a firm, wintry tone of command, the voice of someone accustomed to using money to compress time and distance to her own specifications. He could imagine her ordering around legions of maids with that voice.

“Stay where you are until you hear from me, and don't talk to anyone. How does that sound? Can you manage that?”

She hung up without waiting for an answer.

“Roger,” he said into the dead telephone. He turned off the ringer and fell back asleep.

 

SOMEBODY WAS
pounding on the door of his apartment.

“All right,
all right!
” he yelled without opening his eyes. He lay there for another few seconds, angrily savoring the last moments of sleep, then levered himself upright.

Edward walked to the bathroom, splashed water on his face, and wrapped himself in a fluffy white bathrobe. His eyes felt like they were full of dried rubber cement. Five messages on the answering machine. For a few seconds he didn't even remember what had happened the night before, then it all came rushing back to him. There was no time to think about it. He peered through the peephole.

The person at the door was Laura Crowlyk. Her long, freckled face was wide awake and flushed with excitement. He opened the door.

“Edward!” she cried. She reached up to put both her hands on his shoulders and kissed him long and resoundingly on the mouth. “You found it!”

Flustered, he took a step backward, and she bustled past him into his apartment.

“The Duchess called me.” She stopped and hugged him again, as if they were having a long-awaited reunion. “I knew you were the one!” she said into his terry-cloth shoulder. “I always knew it was you.”

“You did?”

“I can only stay a minute.” She pushed him away. “We have a great deal to do.”

Laura was utterly transformed, her haughtiness gone and replaced by manic good humor. Her serious features weren't suited to such an extreme state of glee. She plunked her buff-leather Coach bag down on his kitchen table.

“I'm going to get dressed,” Edward said.

He gathered up some clean clothes and retreated backward into the bathroom, holding them protectively in front of him in a defensive posture. When he came out, wearing a T-shirt and jeans and feeling marginally more human, she'd put the coffee on. He leaned against the counter, feeling dizzy from lack of sleep.

“So what can I do for you?”

She took a cream-colored envelope out of her bag and handed it to him.

“Plane ticket,” she said.

He opened the envelope. It was to London, one-way, business class. This must be what the Duchess meant when she said she'd take care of it.

“Jesus. This flight leaves in five hours.”

“It was the first one we could get you on.”

“Look, you don't have to do this,” Edward explained patiently. “The firm is already paying my moving expenses to London. I have a flight leaving on Tuesday.”

“It can't wait till Tuesday,” she said primly. “It can't wait another minute. Everything is starting now, Edward. If you can't go, we'll send someone else.”

“No, I'll go,” Edward said, stung.

“Good. A limo will pick you up here at noon to take you to the airport. We'll have a car waiting at Heathrow.”

She handed him a second envelope, this one considerably thicker.

“A thousand dollars and a thousand pounds,” she explained. “For any expenses.”

Edward didn't open it. He didn't have to. He wasn't an idiot: He knew it would all be there. He glanced down at the two envelopes, the money in one hand, the ticket in the other, then up at Laura's flushed, expectant face. A rarefied, intoxicating gas was filling his lungs and carbonating his bloodstream: happiness. It was finally happening. He was passing through the doorway, crossing over into her world, the world of the Duchess. He squared off the envelopes with a businesslike crispness and set them aside before he could do anything stupid, like hold them up to the light or sniff them for their new-money smell.

He sat down at the kitchen table, gripping the most familiar object within reach—his coffee-hot souvenir Enron mug—with both hands as if it were the only solid fulcrum in an otherwise swiftly tilting universe. The last twenty-four hours had been so rushed and dreamlike that they hadn't really sunk in, like a barrage of unread e-mail, but now they were hitting him all at once. The money was nothing, of course. Grossly more than the circumstances called for but infinitely less than a snipped fingernail to the Wents. It was what it stood for, the ease with which it was dispensed, evoking by synecdoche the unimaginable sums that stood behind it. He thought back to the first and only time he'd actually seen the Duchess in the flesh. The dark locks beneath the brim of her sun hat, her pale upturned face, that wide, heartbreaking mouth. She was waiting for him. Not just waiting, she was impatient.

He stared down at his coffee, feeling his pulse start to race. Things were moving too quickly, blurring at the edges, getting away from him. He knew he had to take a giant step backward and get some perspective on the situation. He needed to go in with a plan. He would meet with the Duchess at Weymarshe, formally. He would present her with the codex—or should he leave it in London in a safe-deposit box, show up empty-handed? Which was the stronger position? They'd have to discuss terms, remuneration, a place for him in her organization. He'd need to see some paperwork. He would want to talk to a lawyer.

And then, if all went well, back to London to resign his position at E & H. And then—what? He grimaced. There were too many variables here and too few constants. He was out of his depth. Nick was right: The Duchess hadn't made any promises, or none she couldn't break.
Your instincts are better than this,
he told himself. He'd gone through a lot of trouble and expense to acquire first-class instincts, weapons-grade instincts, and they were telling him to cut his losses here and now. Even Margaret knew better: Never do anything that you can't reverse.

And yet. Something was still pulling him forward, something he couldn't name or describe, a motivation from way out in deep space, way beyond the familiar constellation of desires—hunger, lust, greed, ambition. It was telling him to throw his career away, and he was doing it. He was going through with it. He would never, ever forgive himself if he turned back now. He pictured himself in a bedroom at Weymarshe, sipping coffee by himself in the early morning, in the silence of the deep countryside. Cool stone floors. A large white bed like a white marble tomb, rich linens tastefully disarrayed, white light flooding in through tall windows, green allées receding into the undulating distance.

There would be problems, he knew that. He wasn't delusional. But they'd be new problems, better problems than he had now. He rubbed his chin. He needed to shave. And his stuff—he'd never finished packing. Edward looked around at his chaotic apartment with dismay. There were half-filled boxes everywhere, stacks of books and CDs spilling onto the floor. A crippled coffee table stood with two legs on and two legs off, where he and Zeph had abandoned it.

“I'll never be ready by noon,” he said.

“Not to worry!” said Laura, trilling like Mary Poppins. She covered his hand with hers. “We'll send your things on after you. Or you can stay at the castle, why not? You have a passport?”

Edward nodded dumbly. He felt the apparatus of the Duchess's money swooping down, safely enfolding him in its protective wings. He'd spent his whole career playing with obscene amounts of wealth, counting it, manipulating it, pouring it from account to account, then parking it neatly like a valet and surrendering it to its rightful owner. This must be how it felt from the inside.

“Well, then,” she said. “I think you're all set.”

She stood up to go. Edward stood up with her, taking a deep breath. He felt drunk.

“Ms. Crowlyk—”

“For God's sake, call me Laura.” She beamed at him fiercely as she shouldered her bag. “You're a part of the family now.”

“Laura,” he said, as seriously as he could with his head swimming, “what exactly is going to happen now? Once the Duchess has the codex? I mean, what's she going to do with it?”

She paused, looking at him appraisingly.

“I don't think that's really any of your business,” she said carefully. “Or mine, for that matter. We've done our jobs. We've done what we had to do. Now the Duchess will do what she has to do.”

“But why? What's going to happen to the Duke?”

“Only what he's got coming to him. Only what he deserves. He'd do as much to her if he could, and worse.”

“So—it's all okay?” he said helplessly.

“Of course it is!” She touched his arm, and her face took on an air of maternal concern. “Of course it is! As long as you have the codex. You do have it, don't you?”

Edward nodded weakly, his mind racing again.

He went to let her out, but at the threshold she stopped and turned to face him. For a moment she seemed much older, almost haggard. The points of her collarbone showed above the neckline of her dress, and the skin above it bore a flushed red patch the shape of Australia. She took a step toward him, her eyes glowing with mysterious expectation, and for a second Edward thought she was going to kiss him again.

“Can I see it?” she asked.

Edward blinked. “See what?”

“The codex, foolish boy. Can I see it?”

“It's not here.”

“It's not?” A flicker of doubt crossed her gleeful eyes. “Well, where is it?”

“Margaret has it. It's at her apartment.”

“Margaret—?”

“Margaret Napier. The woman from Columbia.”

Her head reared back. She looked like she wanted to spit in his face.

“You complete bloody fucking bloody idiot. When can you get it back?”

“Whenever I need it,” said Edward.

“Well.” Laura's face was contorted, almost frightening. She was literally shaking with disgust. “Go on and go get it!”

She tried to slam the door on her way out, but Edward caught it before it could close.

“Laura,” he said, “it's just over the bridge in Brooklyn. It's fine. We still have plenty of time.”

She pursed her lips and said nothing, then she opened her leather bag and rummaged around in it furiously for a few seconds. Edward waited. What the hell was she looking for? A gun? A compact? A glove, with which to slap him across the face? She came up with a small square packet wrapped in pink tissue paper.

“There,” she said icily. “The Duchess asked me to give you that.”

He unfolded it standing in the doorway. Inside was a single earring in the shape of a tiny, exquisite silver hourglass. He turned it over in his hands, tenderly, then he looked up again just as Laura slammed the door in his face.

 

EDWARD TOOK
a long, lukewarm shower. His whole body felt dull and achy after his mostly sleepless night. Edward's building was equipped with immensely powerful pre-war plumbing, and his shower was capable of dispensing torrents of warm water at crushingly high pressure for indefinite periods of time. He let it sluice down over his face, smooth as glass, flattening his hair, spilling down his cheeks, gently closing his eyelids. He felt like one of those intrepid explorers who, bayed by cannibalistic pygmies, discovers a secret hideaway in the pocket of space behind a waterfall.

He blinked. He'd drifted off on his feet. It was time to get moving again. He only had five hours to catch his plane, less than that now. He shut off the water, dried himself hurriedly, and got dressed. Before he left he sent an e-mail to Zeph and Caroline letting them know what was going on.

It was after ten when he stepped out onto the sidewalk, his head still spinning. It was a Saturday morning, and the street was empty. A broad fat leaf, still green, came flipping down out of the clear blue sky and flopped gracelessly onto the pavement. He felt like he was walking on the moon.

A large, shiny black sedan was parked by the curb. As he passed it one of the rear doors opened.

“Wait,” said a voice. “Edward.”

Edward turned around to find the tall, lanky form of Nick Harris jogging to catch up with him. He wore a rumpled gray suit that looked like he'd slept in it, and not especially well. His hair was longer than Edward remembered it. In his dark glasses he looked like a blond vampire.

But he was smiling. Edward just smiled back at him. At this point he was past surprise. He just accepted the fact that the world had resorted to simply flinging people at him at random.

BOOK: Codex
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