The archaeological site served as an open-air campus for the university, and my cover was Visiting Scholar to Dr. Fallworth’s seminar. I showed up late. Dr. Fallworth and ten of his students sat around a stone table surrounded by broken pillars. I apologized.
Fallworth wasn’t expecting me.
“I’m the Visiting Scholar. I will help you prepare your lectures and so forth.” Fallworth didn’t like me.
Each student had a brown, lumpy object in front of them on the table. “Here you go then,” said Fallworth, passing a lump down to me. It looked like a baked potato. “If you are here to assist, turn to page 16.” He nodded at the lump.
I attempted to open the lump. It was a baked potato, and it fell apart in my hands. There were no pages, and they weren’t numbered, either.
Fallworth’s students laughed at me.
At my hotel a yellow envelope was tucked under my door with the word “Target” written on the front. That was less secure than usual, though I appreciated the clarity. Inside were two photographs. One of Fallworth and the other of an archer’s target. I had no idea what to make of it, and there was no computer in my room because it was Europe—the sunny, broken part.
Later the woman they sent me held both photographs up by the window to examine them by moonlight. She wore only a satin slip. She was part of the package. She gasped, “I know what this means.”
Well that was one of us, anyway.
2nd day I returned to Fallworth’s seminar, early this time. It was a power play. The Professor stared me down as he distributed the baked potatoes. They were not a joke, never had been.
3rd day it seemed my presence was destabilizing the seminar. Fallworth ordered me to take the helm, give a lecture. I had prepared a poem. No one saw that coming.
Still no word from the agency. The per diem woman returned, and I said I was in the mood for hot jazz. She didn’t know what I was talking about, so I put it another way: “Le jazz hot?”
When she understood she felt sad. This was the wrong country and the wrong point in history for entertainment. She suggested I put in for the temporal branch. She seemed like a smart cookie.
I asked her to make sense of the pictures for me—the professor and the archer’s target. She said, “The target is Fallworth.”
I didn’t get it.
She said, “Fallworth is the target?”
It was as if we weren’t speaking the same language.
She mimed the action of drawing a bow and shooting an arrow. She put the professor’s picture over her face, grabbed at her heart, and staggered back onto the bed. Like some kind of crazy valentine show.
I still didn’t know what my mission was, but I knew I was getting closer. I could feel it.
After midterms Fallworth started to wear military fatigues. [Ukrainian manufacture?] He stopped harassing his female students but still drank with the males. The last four lectures he delivered as if I were the only student present. Subjects: Ritual & Poverty, Hamlet, The City Part 1, The City Part 2.
I hadn’t seen the per diem woman for quite some time, but I didn’t miss her. The bluest sky, the best breakfast. I began to believe I would never leave this place. This was what they meant by “deep cover.”
I walked among the ruins. No one attended the seminar for weeks near the end, not even the professor, but on the final day I spotted him. He stood atop a rocky hill with the sun behind him. He raised a contraption, held it up to help me analyze its silhouette. A bow? Yes, a bow. He nocked the arrow, drew it back.
The night was a swarm. He screamed, “My God man, what the hell is wrong with you!”
The veins in his neck reminded me of the rope course at Quantico.
We tried to make a habitable camp within the foundation of the ancient coldhouse. Fallworth explained the egg of memory, but it was all nonsense: function-al, collect-ive, semant-ic, explic-it. He changed my dressing, threw another book on the bonfire. We had to keep warm.
He said I was an idiot. He said I would die. He said I had succumbed to a rapid infection of my thoughts and that it didn’t matter if pieces of me went missing. Fallworth apologized, blamed, etc. He heaved a basket of laundry onto the fire because he didn’t want to seem intolerant. Then he threw in dogs’ bowls and a case of nails. He didn’t want to appear biased.
By morning, a black car had come for the extraction. It plowed through the ancient world, grinding it to powder. The driver threw me in the back and gave me whiskey. I called him Brother Fate. Fallworth pounded on the windows. The driver and I ate sandwiches, and all the while Fallworth circled the car, trying the doors, peering inside. The driver wrote it all down in a notebook.
We ate our chocolates in the tradition. The driver said I’d receive a commendation for having neutralized the Professor.
When we finally pulled away, Fallworth howled. He began to run after us. I opened the window and yelled, “Goodbye Professor! Do not follow me to America!”
Fallworth stopped. He would wait for me to return. No one waits quite like a Professor. They stand there and sing about their own waiting: I’m wait-ing, wait-ing.
There he was: an intelligent man, arms crossed, knee deep in ancient rubble. A rock wall rising up behind him to razor cut a blue sky, and there was a bird, a big black bird right at the top looking down on him. A carrion bird. The Professor didn’t know.
Laura Ellen Scott is the author of the novel Death Wishing (Ig Publishing, 2011) and the short collection Curio (Uncanny Valley Press, 2011). She is also the Series Editor for The 2012 Wigleaf Top 50.