János winced as he heard his bodyguard bring up the old Hungarian fairy tales. It was the same discussion with the same beliefs and not even the plane’s engine could drown away his companion’s superstitions.
“Tividar,” János began, leaning over his armrest in an attempt to talk sense into his traveling companion. “If all these things exist, why aren’t these spirits-“
“Creatures,” Tividar interrupted.
“Why aren’t all these creatures,” János revised, “talked about in other countries? They’re not even talked about in Hungary anymore.”
“They all go by different names. Nobody believes anymore because they don’t look. You’re not going to find Baba Yaga staying in Budapest your whole life.”
“An old woman who steals away children.”
“Tividar,” János began in a hushed tone. “Don’t you think people would notice a women who abducts children?”
Tividar smiled, “Not at all. She lives in a house with chicken legs. How can anyone find a house always on the move?”
János sighed, slipping back into his chair, “You’re too much.”
“See?” Tividar maintained his smile, “You can’t argue with fact.”
“No, that isn’t it,” János spoke, looking out the window. “I can’t argue with fiction.”
After some time had passed Tividar turned to János, asking, “Do you know when I’ll be assigned to you again?”
“Probably in a month or two. You know I’m never in Budapest very long.”
Before Tividar could give a response the plane banked hard to the left. János and Tividar each clutched their arm rests in white knuckled grips as everyone leaned. Screams came from women and obscenities from men as the plane slowly righted itself. The once sacred skies had far too many planes defiling the air.
Relaxing his grip, János turned his hands and stared at his white fingertips, feeling the pulse pounding against his drained nails. Even though the ordeal had lasted a few seconds, terror and sweat ran down his face.
A casual look to his left brought a smirk to János’ pale face as he saw Tividar’s eyes staring straight into the back of the chair, and his hands with a vice-like grip on the armrests. And for a moment János thought about what the pilots were thinking. Those people must have nerves of steel to right the wrong so quickly. They weren’t meant to say, “Wow, that was close!”
Sprung from his drifting daydream he heard a cackle over the intercom: “Good evening, this is your Captain speaking. We’re suffering some technical difficulties and have been cleared to land in Oran, Algeria. Your tickets can be exchanged for an Air Algérie flight to Rome, Italy, Paris, France or a number of Middle Eastern or North African countries. More information will be provided once we reach the ground. Thank you.”
Jnáos shook his head as his arm swiped at his forehead, clearing away the gathering perspiration. A delay was the last thing he wanted. So little time was spent in Budapest, so little time was spent painting. He needed to get back. He needed to work. Without work, these trips were a waste. And he was only a few hours away from home, just ending a trip in Madrid.
Looking around he noticed no one unbuckled their safety belts; not that they needed to since they were so close to Algeria. Another look and János noticed Tividar beginning to unfreeze himself from the near hit a few minutes before. This roused János’ curiosity, “I wouldn’t have thought someone in your line of work could be shaken so easily.”
“That’s on the ground,” Tividar huffed, repeating, “That’s on the ground.”
János laughed to himself as he heard the plane’s tires hit pavement. Bounce one. Bounce two. Again János looked out his window seeing the ground crew directing the plane so the airport could continue running in fine order. As the plane taxied down the runway and toward a terminal, János couldn’t help but dread getting off. A delay was going to be real and he doubted there would be any direct flights from Oran to Budapest. There would be another delay somewhere else and he’d be lucky to climb into his bed by midnight, provided he could secure a pass from György Lázár’s men. That’s another bribe.
As everyone reached for their overhead compartments to retrieve their bags and headed down the aisle for the terminal, János moved at a slower pace than the others with Tividar no more than a few steps behind him. Coming into earshot range, János heard a man explaining where Air Algérie was flying. Nothing about Budapest. And he was in no mood to listen to connecting flights.
János turned to Tividar, “Why don’t you stay here and listen to the flights? I’m going to go to the restroom.”
“I’m sorry, I can’t do that,” Tividar said. “You know I can’t.”
“Why not? You don’t think I’m going to defect to Algeria, do you?”
“It isn’t my job to think,” Tividar said. “My job is to keep you alive and on your way home. If something happens to ‘Hungary’s Rising Star’ then it’d be my head. And again I’m sorry, but I’ve grown attached to it.”
János paused. “Alright then. Let’s go.”
As they walked through the throng of people and reached the other side, János saw a line extending beyond the door of the restrooms. All he wanted was to splash water on his face. Deciding to find the next one, János’ eyes remained ahead, glad that he was at least able to stretch his legs.
As they entered the restroom János moved toward the sinks and turned on the water. With his hands under the water he leaned his face down, splashing it gently. The cold water did nothing for him, perhaps because he knew he was still in danger. He knew if he tried to flee or leave, Tividar would track him down. The plane incident was just another danger, the different type was what jarred him.
János heard the restroom door open and close. Looking into the mirror a man walk by toward the last stall. He stopped and turned, staring at János in the mirror. Seconds passed. Tividar turned, “What do you want?”
The new man looked toward Tividar for a moment before speaking, “You and the Hungarian. You’re coming with me.”
The restroom door creaked and closed again.
“You’re not taking him anywhere,” Tividar took a few steps toward the man.
A weapon clicked from behind Tividar. János turned at the sound. A handgun was pointed at Tividar’s back and the action stopped. “If you do anything, I’ll blow off your head.”
“Who are you?” Tividar asked.
“Call me, Wikalat Safar. Are you finished with your questions?”
You’ll be caught,” Tividar spoke. “On the cameras.”
“I’m prepared to die for my beliefs. Are you prepared to die for yours?”
János coughed. “There you go, Tividar. Is this that Baba Yaga you were talking about?”
Turning around to face the gunman Tividar dejectedly spoke, “Shut up.” And then to the man holding the weapon, “What do you want with us?”
“With you? Nothing. We need him,” Wikalat Safar spoke, casually pointing the weapon at János before returning his aim to Tividar. “And we’re going to take the both of you outside. I need your passports and identification.”
All at once the unarmed intruder now behind Tividar moved into action, searching Tividar for weapons and identification. He found a holster strapped to Tividar’s chest and in it, a handgun which the unarmed man pocketed. As he searched for passports on both Tividor and János, Wikalat Safar spoke, “Do you have a permit for that? On the plane?”
“There are permits for everything,” the defeated Tividar answered.
“Yes,” Wikalat Safar smiled, “Yes there is.”
“I have their stuff,” the other man spoke after stealing their identification. “Let’s go.”
“You two are going first,” Wikalat Safar spoke to János and Tividar. “And remember. You only have one chance to screw up. Don’t do it here.”
Hiding his weapon the four left the restroom and headed through the airport with Wikalat Safar giving directions. It didn’t take long before they reached the passport line where few people stood. “Stay here,” he told his prisoners while the other stood watch. After a few minutes Wikalat Safar returned and a new attendant took a seat at a vacant booth. Without a word the four slipped through to the other side. The rest of the trip in the airport was a breeze for the kidnapers and it wasn’t more than ten minutes before the four were outside.
A van pulled in front of the foursome and Wikalat Safar spoke from the back, “Get inside.”
The door opened and János and Tividar obeyed. Their kidnappers followed, sitting behind them. As the van began to drive away, both kidnappers sitting in the back removed their weapons, pointing them directly at the head of Tividar, who happened to be nearest to the door. Wikalat Safar spoke, “If your hand goes anywhere near that door handle, we’ll all have to take showers after we arrive.”
“Where are we going?” Tividar asked.
“Quiet!” Wikalat Safar barked, batting Tividar against the head with the butt of the weapon.”Don’t say another thing the rest of this trip or I’ll bury you up to your head in the sand.”
It seemed like hours sitting in silence. János watched the windows and tried remembering the way they had come but there was too much to remember. At times the road devolved into dirt and from dirt, into nothing until the van rediscovered the dirt. The shifting sands no doubt had much to do with the alterations of a physical map. And it was clear the only useful map resided within the heads of the locals.
For the better part of the day the van moved south, taking only a brief break to refill the petrol for the vehicle. Without food or water for the prisoners, János could feel dehydration settling in while his captors drank from canteens. Just before the sun began setting, the driver pulled the van closer to what looked like an ailing factory in the middle of nowhere. János assumed there must’ve been a town nearby for the factory but he couldn’t see any residual from residents. What he did see was a single man standing just outside the door, dressed down in a modern suit.
Breaking hard in front of the factory, the van kicked up sand, skidding a few feet before it came to a halt. Wikalat Safar spoke, “Get out.”
With slight hesitation Trividar reached for the door, unlocking and pushing it open. The horrible heat blasted him in the face, stealing away his breath. Wikalat Safar kicked him out with a booted foot. “Now you,” Wikalat Safar pointed his weapon at János.
János felt his knees go weak but he pushed himself forward with the use of his arms. When he came to the edge he shoved himself out, landing on his feet. Wikalat Safar and his partner in the backseat got out behind them, shutting the door of the van. “Alright, let’s go,” Wikalat spoke, driving his captives toward the factory.
Once they reached the suited man near the entrance the line came to a halt. The man spoke with a sly grin, “I am Khayr ad-Din and this is your new home.”
“The hell it is,” Tividar blurted.
“Watch your tongue!” Khayr ad-Din turned his head with a sharp glare. “If you don’t know how to use it, then you will lose it. And if that happens, I won’t be able to hear you begging for your life.”
Tividar said nothing.
“Very well then,” Khayr turned onto János. “You’re the reason for this whole thing. You have a talent and we’re going to need it. Come inside and get acquainted with your new surroundings.”
Tividar knew if they were trapped inside that they’d be stuck and he’d be responsible for anything that happened to János. Even with the warning from Khayr ad-Din and having no weapons, Tividar tempted fate again. “We’re not going inside.”
Khayr looked to Tividar, holding the glare. “Take care of him,” Khayr said.
As Khayr ad-Din looked toward János the sound of a gun discharging bounced off the sands. Blood spattered the side of János’ face but Khayr received the worst of it. Burgundy blood was smeared from his waist to the top of his head. With Tividar’s body devoid of life and fallen on the sand, Khayr turned toward Wikilat. “What are you thinking?!”
“I- I’m sorry. You told me to get rid of him,” Wikilat Safar stammered, stepping away from the scene.
“Use your head,” Khayr warned, reaching for his holstered weapon near his chest, pulling it out and shooting Wikilat in the face. Khayr ad-Din smirked as Wikilat’s dead body fell back, his face distorted, “Its nice to see you finally taking my advice.”
Khayr ad-Din looked momentarily toward János who was nervously holding his ground. With his bodyguard dead and one of his captors, fear was the only thing that ran through his mind. It was like a raging river without a course. And he was an animal caught in its stream.
“Remove their teeth and fingertips and distort their faces,” Khayr ad-Din spoke to the man who was Wikilat Safar’s companion. “When you’re through with that, bury them out here somewhere and deliver their identification to me. Of course you’ll be given the pay your partner would’ve received. And I trust,” Khayr holstered his weapon, “you’ll pull through. Head back to the city when you’ve finished. At the end of the week, the money will be in your account.”
The man nodded, moving toward the motionless Tividar. Reaching underneath his arms, the man began pulling Tividar toward the rear of the factory and would likely do the same with Wikilat. Money was money and it didn’t grow anywhere, much less in southern Algeria.
His hand disappearing into a rear pocket, Khayr pulled out a clean, white handkerchief and began wiping at his face. Once all that remained were red streaks, Khayr ad-Din let the handkerchief fall to the ground. “You understand what happens when you don’t follow rules. It had to be done.” His eyes appeared black in the sunlight, and seemingly sparkled.
“He-“ János began, having trouble finding his tongue. “He deserved it.”
“He,” Khayr emphasized, “was my brother and I’ll not have you talking about him in that way. This is your warning. Everyone receives only one.”
János took in a breath of dry air, trying to sound casual as he exhaled, “Understood.”
“Let’s get inside,” Khayr spoke, taking a step to the side. “After you, of course.”
One wary step traipsed in front of the other as János entered through the open door. Looking around he noticed the factory appeared vacant. The only thing that ran in the entire place were the lights slung around old machines like Chinese lanterns. An eerie feeling overcame him, wondering what Khayr ad-Din wanted to do with him.
With a word here and there, Khayr ad-Din guided János toward the rear of the factory until they stopped at a corner. “Stop,” Khayr ordered. “See that chain on the floor? Loop it through the draw and fasten it to the iron beam sticking out of the wall.”
János did this with great effort; years of painting leached away his physical strength. As the struggle began, a door in the floor opened. After János fastened the chain as instructed, it sat, open-mouthed at a near 45 degree angle. Staring into the basement he saw steep stairs and nothing else. It was dark.
“Go on,” Khayr said.
János heard a sound next to him as Khayr flipped a heavy switch. Looking back down the staircase he saw the basement lights come on, what few there were. It was dim but had enough visibility to tell him he wasn’t going to be walking into walls.
After climbing down the stairs, János took a look around. There wasn’t much to it. It was a small room with a table and a set of chairs. Everything was dusty and dirty as though time had swept through, personalizing every bit of the old storage room.
“Take a seat,” Khayr advised after he followed János. While János went toward the table, Khayr bent down alongside the staircase where he retrieved an old book. Its pages looked to be frayed as if eaten by rats, and its cover wore old leather and decoration with no words where a title should be. It was blanketed in dust. Or was it beaten by sand? It was of no matter to János. The only affect the book had on him was a brief fit of coughing after Khayr ad-Din slammed it on the table, causing the dust to rise.
“What’s this?” Jnáos asked, looking down at the battered book.
“This,” Khayr spoke as he opened the cover, flipping through the pages, “is the other half of your talent.”
Shaking his head, János spoke, “I have nothing to do with books. I’m a painter. The Spanish-“
“I know what they say about you,” Khayr cut him off. “I’ve spent enough time researching and watching you that I know I have the right man. You may even find that your talents as a painter pale in comparison to what you’re able to do with this book.”
“Its pages are blank. What am I supposed to do? Write it?”
“You’re beginning to get the idea,” Khayr grinned in the darkness. János could see his white teeth beaming through the poor lighting.
“I don’t understand,” János looked toward the book again. It seemed like Khayr ad-Din made a mistake.
“What you have to do is very simple. Open the book to the first page, read what’s inscribed and you’ll find yourself in the world of the book. Your body will remain here but while you’re there, the pages will begin to fill with writing, writing that describes what you’re doing and saying. When the book is complete then history will be altered. What’s written in the book will become fact.”
“Not quite. Your objective, while you’re in the book, is to maintain the monarchy throughout the centuries.”
“Why? What are you? Some kind of descendent?”
“Something like that,” Khayr looked down upon his victim. “Please, while you’re living in this book, bear in mind that your body will remain here. If you go off track you won’t have to worry about coming back.”
“Out of the book.”
With a quirked eyebrow, János inquired, “You captured me and brought me here for a game of hocus pocus? You seem to have gone through an awful lot of trouble for a failed belief.” János rose from the chair and began walking toward the staircase. “Is that van still out there?”
Khayr watched as János got up and headed toward the stairs. The man had a strange confidence, to be sure. But he spoke up when János’ foot fell upon the first stair, “Sit, down.” Khayr removed his weapon. When János heard the brief rustling, he turned and saw the gun pointing at him, allowing Khayr to speak to him as they stared in one another’s eyes, “Or I’ll van Gogh your ear.”
János stopped. He had seen Khayr take out his own men, along with János’ bodyguard. Would Khayr also eliminate the man he set out to capture? He seemed to believe in cheap magic tricks and went to huge lengths to carry them out. How stable could such a man be?
Khayr ad-Din had a gun pointed at the artist and there were still two men outside, if they hadn’t driven off yet. And it was likely night. How much success could he have if he tried to flee? If he was able to make it out of the basement? With trepidation János relinquished his position on the stairs and headed back to the seat and sat down, staring at the cover of the book.
“How do I do this?” János asked.
“You remember what you’re meant to do,” Khayr commented as though János hadn’t said a word.
“Maintain the monarchy,” János spoke placidly.
Khayr smiled, “You’re going to make me proud.”
“But how do I do this?” János asked again.
“Simple,” Khayr ad-Din finally got around to answering the question. “Open the book and begin reading.”
Taking a gulp of dry air he felt the lump in his throat returning from when he witnessed his bodyguard getting shot. He could still feel the cooling blood on the side of his face as he did his best to ignore it but its smell was a constant reminder. János reached out a hand, turning the cover of the book to reveal the first page. He read slowly with an intent to absorb.
I AM THE WAY INTO THE CITY OF WOE
I AM THE WAY TO A FORSAKEN PEOPLE
I AM THE WAY INTO ETERNAL SORROW.
SACRED JUSTICE MOVED MY ARCHITECT.
I WAS RAISED HERE BY DIVINE OMNIPOTENCE,
PRIMORDIAL LOVE AND ULTIMATE INTELLIGENCE.
ONLY THOSE ELEMENTS TIME CANNOT WEAR
WERE MADE BEFORE ME, AND BEYOND TIME I STAND.
ABANDON ALL HOPE YE WHO ENTER HERE.
- Dante Alighieri
With János heading into his trance Khayr ad-Din spoke his parting words, “When you read this book, you’re making a deal with the devil.” And he laughed.