By Bojan Ratković
When he first took possession of a small leather briefcase from the man in the white hat, Kastner didn’t intend to open it. His job was clean and simple: get the merchandise, make the call, wait exactly 48 hours before making the delivery. He never looked inside — the thought didn’t even cross his mind — and this, he believed, was why the woman continued to employ him.
He received the package at the same place, the back entrance of the Café Isidore across the street from the park. As he did a hundred times before, Kastner nodded to the man in the white hat, grabbed the briefcase, and strolled casually into the park and out of sight. He entered the phone booth on the corner of Flint and Elyse at five past one, his beige fedora perched just above his eyes. He closed the doors behind him and grabbed the receiver, sliding a single quarter into the slot and dialing the woman’s number. There was a brief pause, and then the familiar click on the other line.
“It’s Kastner. I’ve got a present for you, miss. It is your birthday.”
“Yes. Thank you, Kastner.”
“Will there be a party?”
“There will be, at the old place. Will you come?”
“Yes.” They would meet two days from now, on the third floor of the art gallery at 1 o’clock.
There was a slight crackling on the other end, and then the woman spoke again. “Kastner, the present. I need you to open it.”
“Pardon?” Kastner’s steel-gray eyes darted from left to right.
“Yes, please. It needs to be done, and it has to be you. You’re the only one I can trust with this. I need you to make sure it works.”
Kastner was silent. The woman’s request was unprecedented; she was asking him to look inside the package.
“Excuse me, miss,” Kastner said, gripping the receiver tightly, “forgive me, but what exactly am I looking for?”
There was a brief pause, and then another crackle on the other end. The woman sighed. “I don’t know. The man in the white hat wouldn’t tell me — not this time. But I know it’s something special. That’s why I need your help.”
Kastner shook his head. “But surely you have someone else who could … who could do this for you. My job has never been —”
“It has to be you, Kastner. I’m sorry, but I can’t trust the others. Not with this. This is your last job, after all, and then you’re free to do as you wish. But I hope I can count on you this one final time.”
“Yes, but …”
“It would mean a lot to me, and it goes without saying that you will be properly rewarded. I wouldn’t ask if it wasn’t absolutely necessary.”
“I understand,” Kastner said after some time. “I will do as you ask, and I will see you at the party.”
“Good.” Another loud click and she was gone. Kastner frowned; he slammed the phone down on the hook and burst out the door. He stepped quickly through the busy street, his long coat whipping behind him. The briefcase felt heavy under his arm.
That night Kastner sat frozen at his desk in darkness. The fire had long subsided and there was only a small heap of scarlet ash in the fireplace. The scent of the dying flame spread through the apartment. He glared at the briefcase on his desk. The sooner he opened it, the sooner he could determine if it worked — whatever that meant.
It was his job.
The whole thing felt like payback for his early retirement, but in his line of work — where payback meant death — this kind of payback was something he could live with. He reached forward, grabbed the briefcase, and turned it upright. He pulled the latch and probed the lock with his finger. He cracked the combination, and the latch popped free.
Just about anything could have been inside the briefcase. Kastner had known the woman for some time, and there was a reason why she employed him every time she needed to procure something from the man in the white hat. For this kind of job she needed an expert in a very particular field, and Kastner was the best. But even Kastner knew better than to meddle with the merchandise, and he wasn’t looking forward to doing it this time. With a shake of his head and a deep breath he switched on the lamp on his desk, then pulled the briefcase open and peered inside.
It was only a book, very thick and bound in black leather. On the cover, written in sharp white letters, was a sequence: XXI/VI/MMXIII. He crossed his arms over the table and closed his eyes, the letters on the cover dancing in his mind.
It could be code, or initials, Kastner thought. “But no, that’s not it,” he said aloud. “It’s Roman numerals.” The numbers were 21/6/2013. After a brief pause, Kastner nodded and smiled. “It’s a date,” he whispered to no one in particular. “Tomorrow’s date.” He ran his fingers over the spine of the book, feeling the smooth leather beneath his fingertips. Then he flipped the book open and turned to the first page.
The paper was black with small white letters arranged in neat columns stretching from top to bottom. Kastner skimmed through the book and saw the columned layout repeated on each page. There was nothing odd about the book itself. The texture was perfectly normal, and there was no strange smell. Upon closer inspection, Kastner determined there was nothing concealed inside. He rubbed his chin thoughtfully, flipped back to the first page, pulled the desk lamp closer, and started on the contents.
The first column was made up of names, arranged in alphabetical order. The very first name on the first page was Aaberg, Georgina May; followed by Aarons, Gregory Martin; and Aazam, Asif Hammad. Funny name, Aazam, Kastner thought, like something a magician would use — AAZAM THE AMAZING. The names went all the way down to Zwinger, Franz, which was the final name on the last page. The second column contained a time of day, so that for Aaberg it was 4:03 a.m.; for Aarons it was 1:48 p.m.; for Aazam it was 12:33 a.m. The third and final column was the most curious: for Aaberg it read Heart Attack, for Aarons it was Overdose, and for Aazam it was Train Derailment. It seemed to indicate the way they died — something like the cause of death for each person.
It’s like a phone book of the dead, Kastner thought. He flipped quickly through the pages and it struck him as incredible that there could be so many pages there. There had to be tens of thousands of names in this book, maybe more. But what was the purpose of it all? What use could anyone have for this list? The answer was beyond Kastner’s grasp — at least on this night. He slammed the book shut and turned off the lamp on his desk.
Kastner woke the next morning to the sound of screeching tires on the street below. He flew out of bed, dashed through the bedroom door, and threw a quick glance at his desk. It was still there — the big black book. Kastner let out a slow, whistling breath of relief at the sight of it. No one could have broken in and taken it without waking him, but even so, Kastner was driven by an obsessive attention for detail that made him so good at his job. He needed to see the book again just to be sure.
He prepared for the day and had just finished the breakfast dishes when a faint knock on the door broke the steady melody of the street outside the window.
At first Kastner thought the knocking was coming from next door; he didn’t receive visitors here, and he made a point of keeping this particular location secret. No one knew where he lived, not even the woman who employed him.
Knock. Knock. Knock.
The sound was louder this time, and there was no doubt the knocking was coming from outside his door. He considered ignoring it at first — if he didn’t answer the uninvited guest would have to leave eventually — but then he remembered that it could be the building manager, and ignoring him would raise questions. Moving quickly, Kastner tiptoed to his desk and slipped the big black book into the drawer and out of sight, but not before removing the pistol from inside.
“Just a moment,” he called from across the room, then moved for the door, the gun concealed carefully behind his back. He slid the small wooden cover from the peephole and peered outside.
The building manager was a short, balding man with a crooked nose and a single massive stripe of hair where his eyebrows should be. This was not the manager. Through the peephole Kastner saw the slightly distorted image of a woman’s face; she was young and pretty, with wavy red hair that fell to her shoulders and deep green eyes. She was looking directly at him through the glass, and she had a friendly smile.
“Who is it?” Kastner asked. He cocked the weapon behind his back as he spoke, his voice masking the distinct clack of the gun. He had never seen this girl before and, whoever she was, there was no reason at all for her to be here.
“Yes, uhm, hello,” the woman said in a small voice. “My name is Marina, I’m your neighbor from across the hall. I’m new here, just moved in last week. Apartment 402.” She stepped back from the door, pointing down the hallway.
“What can I do for you?”
The girl smiled, her parted lips revealing pretty white teeth. Soft dimples — as if painted on — glistened on her cheeks. “Sorry to bother you.” She looked to the floor apologetically. “I seem to have gotten some of your mail.” She held up a thin package in front of the peephole. “It says ‘For: Mr. Jacob Carver, apartment 408.’”
“Hmm,” Kastner mumbled. “I see.” Carver was the alias he used to rent the place, and he supposed there was nothing very strange about some of his mail ending up in the wrong mailbox. What’s more, this girl was not much older than twenty; if she was sent to kill him, she would be no threat to a man of Kastner’s caliber.
If she tried anything at all, he would cut her down where she stood. What a shame that would be, Kastner thought, thinking of those dimples. “Okay, just give me a second.” His voice was more gentle now. He unbolted the heavy steel lock at the top of the door and there was a loud snap as the latch gave way. Then he turned the key in the smaller lock under the knob, pulling the door open.
“Hi!” the girl said and cocked her head to the side as Kastner surveyed her through the open door. She wasn’t very tall, but she was fit, with ample curves in all the right places. She wore a red summer dress embroidered throughout with bright, flowery designs and Kastner could feel the sharp scent of her perfume fill the air around him. For a moment he wondered what she would look like without the dress, without any clothes at all.
“Hi,” Kastner replied and his lips curved slightly. He stood at the edge of the doorway, his right hand still hidden behind his back. The girl smiled, and her eyes jumped quickly between Kastner and the door. They were wildly green, with a thin strand of yellow around the pupils.
Kastner held out his hand for the package, and she handed it to him. He glanced down at it for only a moment, but that was all it took; something caught the girl’s eye, and she slipped inside with a playful hop, brushing Kastner aside as she went.
“Hey!” Kastner screamed and turned quickly to keep the gun hidden. He watched her stroll through the hallway and toward the large double windows in the living room. He braced himself.
“Nice view,” she said, approaching the windows and glancing into the street below. “It’s not fair, you know. I’m jealous. All I see when I look out my window is that stupid parking garage.” Her voice was soft and playful.
Kastner took two steps in her direction, then stopped. “Listen, thanks for bringing the mail. I appreciate it. But I have to ask you to leave now, I have work to do.” He paused for a moment, adding, “What I mean is, I have to get ready for work. So if you don’t mind —”
“Have you figured it out yet?” she asked without turning, her eyes still taking in the view.
“Have I what?”
“The book.” She turned swiftly on her heel to look at him again. A big smile was painted on her lips. “That’s what you’re working on, isn’t it?”
Kastner frowned. “I … I’m not sure what you mean.” He clutched the gun tighter.
“Oh relax, will you?” Her smile broadened at the change in his expression. “I’m not here to kill you, Kastner. And if I was, would I come knocking on your door?” At this thought she let out a soft, girlish laugh.
Kastner’s eyes narrowed and his jaw clenched. He pulled the gun swiftly from behind his back and pointed it at her. “Who are you and what do you want?” His finger curled around the trigger.
Still smiling, the girl shook her head and rolled her eyes, then placed her hands on her hips.
“I won’t ask again!”
“Oh fine,” the girl said, a hint of frustration in her voice. “I already told you my name; it’s Marina. And I am your neighbor. I also told you I’m not here to kill you, so you can put that thing away, cowboy.” She pointed at the gun, lips pursed but eyes still smiling.
“I’d rather not, if you don’t mind. What are you doing here? How do you know about the book?”
“Relax, baby. I’m just doing my job. I work for someone who is very interested in you and your well-being. At least that’s what he tells me. I moved in last week to make sure nothing happens to you. That’s all.”
Kastner smirked at this. “So you’re here to protect me, are you? And just what makes you think I need your protection?”
The girl shrugged. “Nothing at all. But my boss seems to think you do, so that’s why I’m here. I just thought I’d stop by and say ‘hello’. Also, I thought I’d help you out a bit.” Kastner saw her eyes move to the envelope that still hung from his hand. He had forgotten it completely.
“How did you find me? How do you know about the book?”
“It’s my employer who knows.”
“Who is your employer?” Deep lines were forming on Kastner’s face. He took a step forward.
The girl stood her ground. “Ah, that’s not for me to say.”
“How about we cut the bull and you tell me what I need to know, or else I’ll —”
“Or else you’ll shoot me?” she interrupted. “No, you won’t. I’m just an unarmed girl, remember?” She held her hands out in front of her. “And you won’t have to, because I was just leaving.” She swooped past him casually, and he followed her movements with the muzzle of the gun.
“Stop right there, I’m not kidding.”
The girl, now steps from the door, stopped but didn’t turn. “You wouldn’t shoot a nice girl like me in the back, would you cowboy?”
He said nothing. He couldn’t see her face but he knew that even now she was smiling.
After a brief silence the girl spoke, her voice very sweet, “I was just leaving. But my door’s always open in case you need me. Apartment 402, just across the hall, okay?”
“Why would I need anything from you?”
She giggled again. “Well, you didn’t think she’d just let you retire, did you?”
“What … what did you say?”
“Just open the package; you’ll figure it out.” She stepped forward slowly. “I’ll be across the hall if you need me.” Before he could say anything else, the girl slipped out the door and closed it gently behind her.
He stood there for some time as a single bead of sweat zigzagged down his face. He lowered the gun eventually and paced around the room, the gun in one hand and the package in the other, until his feet took him to his desk in the corner of the room. He placed the gun on the desk and ripped the envelope open.
What fell out was a perfectly ordinary newspaper — the World News Daily, early edition. He flipped quickly through the pages. Unable to find a single hidden note or message of any kind, Kastner sighed and shook his head. He was just about to dump it in the trash when something caught his eye at the bottom of the front page. It was a small picture that showed a chaotic scene: overturned train cars sprawled across a burning landscape. The headline read: Pakistan train derailment kills 20, Minister among dead. Below the picture was a short paragraph:
This morning at around 9:30 a.m. local time a deadly train derailment near Lahore, Pakistan sent six cars off the tracks, killing at least 20 people. Sources in the Pakistani government confirm that Federal Minister of the Interior, Asif Hammad Aazam, is among the dead. More on pg. 3.
Kastner paused for a moment, thinking. He put the paper back on his desk and rubbed his forehead, eyes staring into space. Aazam … Aazam … AAZAM THE AMAZING! His eyes twitched into focus and he opened the desk drawer, fishing the big black book from inside and throwing it open on the table. Placing his finger on the first column of the very first page, he traced his way down the list. He was looking for Aazam, Asif Hammad, who had been third on the list and whose cause of death had been Train Derailment.
But Aazam wasn’t there. Neither was Aaberg or Aarons, which had been the first two names on the list. First on the list was Aaby, Roxanna. Second was Aaker, Matthew John. Third was Abel, Johannes. Kastner leaned in closer to make sure he was reading it correctly. He flipped the page once and then twice and three times, looking for Aaberg, Aarons, and Aazm. The Aa’s and Ab’s quickly turned into Ac’s, Ad’s. Aazam was gone.
Kastner checked the final page, and instead of finding Zwinger last on the list he saw the name Zvorsky, Boris staring back at him. “What’s going on?” Kastner breathed as he slammed the book shut again. Then he saw it.
He hadn’t noticed before, but the cover was different, too. The Roman numerals on the front now read XXII/VI/MMXIII — 22/6/2013. This was tomorrow’s date, but last night it said 21/6/2013 — today’s date.
The damn thing changes daily, all by itself, Kastner thought. The names, they are the names of those who died … NO, they are the names of those who will die the next day. He dropped into his chair, eyes wide, a cold shiver clawing up his spine. Then another thought swam from the back of his mind and panged into focus, pushing everything else aside.
You didn’t think she’d just let you retire, did you? That was what the girl said. Kastner opened the book again, but this time he flipped to the letter K. When he found it, he swept down the list with his finger.
Kane … Kastel … Kastner.
There, in bright white letters on black paper, arranged in three neat columns and burning themselves painfully into his brain were the words: Kastner, Hugo. 1:10 p.m. Explosion.
He rubbed his prickly chin, struggling to take in what he was seeing — his demise written down in Death’s own phonebook.
Of course the woman wouldn’t let him retire; he knew too much. He was foolish to think that after all these years she would trust him, foolish to think that he could trust her. Tomorrow at 1:10 p.m. — ten minutes after the arranged meeting —he would die in an equally arranged explosion. The woman would get what she wanted this one last time, and then all the secrets he knew would die with him.
That was, after all, what it meant to “retire” in his particular line of work. He had known it all along; had he hoped for a different outcome? It was a lapse in judgment, trusting in the woman and the bond they shared as a result of their long and successful partnership. There were no bonds in his profession; only interest and death. Either you serve the former, or you are served the latter. No exceptions.
Now that it was all out on the table, Kastner was surprised by his clarity of mind. He was calm, collected, and only mildly disappointed. It was part of the job — the most important part, really. This was, then, just another day at the office.
The one thing that did trouble him was the girl, Marina. Somehow she knew about the book, knew what it was, and not only that, she knew about the woman’s intentions.
You didn’t think she’d just let you retire, did you?
Kastner leaned back in his chair and looked at the ceiling. Why did she come to warn him? Why did her employer, whoever that was, want him alive? He noticed a spider on the ceiling above, hanging from an invisible web. It was perfectly still, as if dead. As if harmless.
Setting a trap.
Kastner slammed the book shut, rising from his chair with the ghost of a smile on his lips.
Marina sat on a lounge chair by the window, her legs crossed and a book in her hand. A glass of dark wine stood on a small coffee table at her side. She heard two sharp knocks from the doorway.
“Come in,” she said, closing the book and placing it gently on her lap.
Kastner opened the door, freshly shaven and formally dressed, complete with long beige coat and matching hat.
“Kastner, you came.”
Kastner stood in the doorway and looked around the apartment; it was the mirror image of his own: gray, plain, and spotless. But the view was terrible, with the double windows on this side of the building facing a skeletal parking structure. Only a thin slit of sky peeked in from above, darkened clouds announcing the coming dusk. “You keep your door unlocked?”
Marina smiled. “Why wouldn’t I? I’m not a killer, baby. I told you that. There’s no one dangerous looking for me. Except maybe you …” She winked. Kastner stood in silence, watching her. “Well don’t just stand there. Have a seat, cowboy.”
He sat down at the far end of the sofa, taking his hat off and placing it on the table. The smell of wine was strong. He looked at Marina, his eyes drifting down her body and then quickly up again. Her dress was different from this morning, green with golden swirls. It was also shorter, sitting high on her crossed legs and revealing knees and milky white legs. There was a star-shaped birth mark on her inner thigh. Kastner knew that this too was part of the job — she wanted him to let his guard down, to think about her thighs instead of her intentions. It was the oldest trick in the book because it worked. He looked her in the eyes, his face stern and unmoving. But his mind was on the birth mark, and on what lay beyond.
“Would you like some wine?” she asked, then jumped in before he could answer. “No, of course not! You’re more of a whiskey man, aren’t you?”
Kastner waved her off. “Nothing for me, thanks.” He took off his coat and folded it in his lap.
“Let me take that for you.” Marina said. She took his coat and walked down the hall. Kastner watched her go, watched how the dress hugged her hips as she walked. He imagined how smooth her skin would feel to his touch. When she returned, she sat on the couch next to him, crossing her legs again, adjusting her dress, smiling as the scent of her perfume reached him.
“I figured it out,” Kastner said. “She plans to kill me tomorrow.”
“She wanted me to open it. Why would she let me see?”
“She’s worried. She doesn’t know how it works. Not many people do, but my employer does. He also knows about you.”
“So he wants to help me. Why is that?”
“Because he knows your value, the value of your skills. The question is, are you ready to accept my help?” She smiled. The green dress matched the color of her eyes perfectly.
“Can I change it, then? Can I change what’s going to happen?”
“Yes, of course we can. And I sure hope we do; I’m starting to like you, Kastner. So, will you accept my help?”
“I guess I don’t have a choice. If I run, she’ll find me. And even if she can’t, your boss will. He found me this time, didn’t he?”
She nodded again.
“So what will it cost me?”
She smiled again. “Your retirement.”
“You want me to work for you?”
“For my employer,” she said softly. “Nothing that would take up too much of your time. He only needs you for the jobs no one else can do.”
“My employer has many resources at his disposal.” She leaned in closer. “He will make it worth your while.”
“I’m sure he will.” Her presence provoked his senses; he felt her scent all around, felt a thirsty flame rising inside him.
She took a sip of her wine, then placed the glass back on the table. “So … do we have a deal, cowboy?”
Kastner smirked, then nodded. “You help me stay alive, and in return I do your dirty work. In this profession, that’s really the only kind of deal there is.” He looked at her, his gray eyes defiant. There was something else there — something like hunger. “But the thing is, I still don’t know who I’m dealing with.”
Marina’s smile widened as her eyes narrowed. “I guess you don’t, do you?” Her voice was a purr. “You know, there’s something just so sexy about a man who’s supposed to die tomorrow.” She leaned forward, her hands clasping his face and pulling him into her. He drank the wine off her lips.
The day that was supposed to be Kastner’s last was cold but bright. As he walked through the massive glass doors of the art gallery, Kastner turned over in his head the words he should have said to Marina but didn’t: Don’t think for a second that your little routine worked on me. You’re just doing your job, and I’m just doing mine. That’s all. But hadn’t said it because he didn’t exactly mean it … not entirely.
Kastner walked casually, the briefcase gripped firmly in his hand. He studied his surroundings while pretending to take in the art. He knew the building well. From the outside, the gallery was a big block of glass and concrete that looked like an overgrown box of tissues. Inside, long white walls lined with framed paintings extended above polished floors. But it was the people he was interested in — mostly suit-and-tie types, with the occasional bearded hipster moving quietly from piece to piece at a pace that was half that of a normal person. He could see nothing out of the ordinary for this time of day.
He ascended the spiral staircase in the middle of the building. His meetings with the woman always took place on the third floor. He checked his watch as he climbed: five minutes before 1 o’clock. He made his way to the same wooden bench he sat on so many times before, in one of the corners near the window. Sunlight shown through the glass, reflecting off the white walls. The bench was facing a sculpture that looked like something a child in pre-school would make; this was the “Abstract Art” section of the galley. Abstract art was an oxymoron as far as Kastner was concerned, kind of like brilliant fool but worse, since so many fools took this type of art seriously.
He took a seat on the bench, placing the briefcase on the ground in an upright position so that it leaned against his foot. The bench was warm on account of the sun-baked window, but Kastner kept his coat on and his hat perched low on his head. He looked at his watch: one minute before 1 o’clock. He took another glance at the garbage pile of awkwardly stacked tin cans that was supposed to be a sculpture, trying not to laugh at the sight of it. If he really was to die in 10 minutes time, it would be better than having to sit there any longer.
Kastner heard the sharp click-clack of footsteps and turned his head slightly at the sound. It was the woman; he recognized the long dark hair falling over her shoulders, the bright red lipstick, and the dark sunglasses. She wore a long black coat with matching leather gloves and high-heeled boots. As always, she carried with her a briefcase identical to his own; he had the merchandise, she had the payment, and the only thing left to do was make the switch.
The woman sat down beside him and placed her briefcase next to his own so that they were touching. “Good to see you, Kastner,” she said quietly, glancing at him for only a moment before looking straight ahead.
“Good to see you, too,” Kastner replied, his eyes looking past her as if they were strangers. “I opened the present for you. It works fine.”
“Excellent, thank you.” There was a hint of satisfaction on her face. She was a woman in her forties, the lines on her face not yet deep, but visible. “I’m sorry for asking you to do that,” she whispered. “The man in the white hat told me it was special, but he wouldn’t say anything more than that. That’s never happened before.”
Two men in suits passed casually beside them, and Kastner lowered his voice: “You won’t regret the purchase, ma’am. I guarantee it.”
“Good,” she said and almost smiled. “I’m sorry to see you go, Kastner. You were the best.”
“It’s been a pleasure.”
“It has. I wish you the best.”
At that moment, they heard the sound of footsteps approaching, and they both turned instantly. It was a young girl in a tight pink sweater and jeans, her red hair tied back in a ponytail. “Oh! What a great piece,” she almost shrieked with excitement as she approached the tin-can sculpture. “It’s so cute … looks like two pigs kissing, doesn’t it?” She looked at the woman and Kastner as if expecting an answer. Kastner ignored her but the woman nodded and smiled, the same way you smile at someone’s annoying child.
“Sorry to bother you, ma’am,” the girl said in her high-pitched voice, “but would you happen to know where the coffee shop is? I’m meeting a friend there, and I’ve been looking for the place for, like, half an hour.” It was great, the childish act she put on. It was believable. “You see,” she continued, “I’m from out of town and my friend told me to meet her here, only not here exactly. At the coffee shop, it’s just that I can’t seem to find it.” She smiled an innocent lost-in-the-big-city smile.
The woman leaned forward. “Sure dear, the coffee shop is on the ground floor.” She pointed to the staircase. Kastner stood and picked up the briefcase, leaving the other behind.
“On the ground floor? Oh, but I’ve been there already, and I didn’t see anything …” the girl sighed, puppy-dog eyes glimmering.
“It’s at the far end, dear, right by the restrooms.”
The girl stood still for a moment, thinking it over. Then she jumped, as if a light bulb went off inside her head. She thanked the woman before hurrying off. Kastner glanced at the woman one last time, bowed his head slightly, then took off the other way. The woman would wait for him to disappear before leaving herself. He headed for the back of the building, descended to the ground floor, then stepped out into the daylight. The time was 1:07.
Instead of going home, Kastner made his way around the corner. He walked quietly to a shaded spot behind an oak tree, where he could remain hidden while still having a clear view of the parking lot. At 1:09 the woman exited the building with the other briefcase in hand and walked out into the parking lot. Kastner watched her from a distance as she stepped inside a black jeep with tinted windows, and then he heard the doors slam shut behind her. He glanced down at his watch again. 1:10. The air around him was cold and dry.
There was a moment of frozen silence, and then a crashing roar ripped through the air. The jeep bounced off the ground as a giant fireball swallowed it up from the inside, the windows bursting out like confetti. Thick smoke billowed into the sky as the sharp sound of the blast gave way to the steady chirping of a dozen car alarms. Stunned passersby — some silent, others screaming and shouting — moved slowly toward the scene of the explosion. Kastner opened his briefcase just enough to see the big black book still safely inside, then closed it and walked away.
Two blocks later, Marina caught up with him. She wrapped her arm around his, and he didn’t protest. “I’m glad you took the right briefcase back with you, cowboy. You never know with these things.” She gave him her most alluring smile. The ponytail really did make her look younger.
“I don’t know, maybe I should’ve taken the other one,” he said with a smirk. “Who knows what I’m in for now?”
“I guess you’ll just have to wait and see.”
As they walked down the crowded street, Kastner caught something in the corner of his eye. Sitting on the patio of a small café across the street was a face he knew — the man in the white hat. He watched them with something like pride. As Kastner turned to face him, the man tipped his hat in their direction.
They walked on, dark smoke rising in the distance.
Bojan Ratković is an aspiring writer from Serbia, living and working in Ontario, Canada. Recently his work appeared in the Great Lakes Cultural Review and on the World SF Blog. He is pursuing a PhD degree in political philosophy from the University of Western Ontario, in London, Ontario.