The Jagged Man by Michael Sirois - Read Online
The Jagged Man
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Summary

Sarah Brown, a brainy techno-geek, and her boyfriend, Rice University historian John Rodriguez, match wits with an 8,000 year old sociopath, whose natural genetics have let him reach the 21st century looking like he’s only forty.

Back when he actually was forty, but still looked like a child, his Stone Age tribe tossed him off a cliff (to kill his obviously evil magic). He survived, but his legs were horribly mangled, giving him the jagged shape of the title. Vowing vengeance, he slaughtered his entire tribe, and then continued to cause death and destruction for the next eighty centuries.

Skip to 2005. Under an assumed identity, he’s in New Orleans, planting explosives, so he can blow the levees and flood the city during Hurricane Katrina. But then he needs a new identity. He meets, murders, and becomes Claude Vieuxos, a newly hired history professor at Rice University.

Meanwhile, at Rice, Sarah and John are studying an ancient papyrus that could expose the Jagged Man’s rampage through history. When Vieuxos discovers this, he sets a plan in motion to destroy the papyrus and take the lives of both Sarah and John.
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The Jagged Man - Michael Sirois

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Author

This book is a work of fiction. Any people, organizations, corporations, institutions, places, or events are either the products of the author’s imagination; or, if real, are used fictitiously without any attempt to describe their actual conduct or the truth of the events. Any resemblance to actual events, places, entities or people, living or dead, is purely coincidental.

Copyright © 2015 by Michael Sirois. All rights reserved, including the right to reproduce this book or portions thereof in any form whatsoever.

ISBN 978-0-9863948-0-5

Flio Widdix Publishing

http://www.fliowiddixpublishing.com/

Dedication

As always, this is for my wife, Minay, my partner in crime, my confidante, and my initial beta-reader. Without her patient understanding, this book wouldn’t exist.

Acknowledgements

A number of people were instrumental in helping me shape this work, but any flaws should not be attributed to them. Errors in the book should be blamed on my inability to follow their advice.

First, I would like to thank Chris Thomas King for permission to quote from his song, Baptized in Dirty Water, copyright © 2006.

Thanks to Jodi Katz for correcting my bad grammar in the invented Latin quote I used in the frontispiece; and merci to Dr. Bernard C. Erasu and Dr. Suzanne Kemmer, both of Rice University, for foreign language help. Dr. Erasu for correcting the poor excuse for French I originally had Claude Vieuxos speaking; and Dr. Kemmer for the discussion which led to my choice of using Basque and Welsh as a basis for creating my pre-historical languages. Also from Rice, Bill Courtney and others from the office of the General Counsel and Public Affairs for their approval of the way Rice is depicted in the book.

Many thanks to my friend, Dr. Dominick D’Aunno, for allowing me to pester him frequently with questions about drugs and their effects, about medical equipment, and a variety of other inane thoughts I had during the writing.

Also, thanks to Dr. Frank L. Holt, at the University of Houston, for directing me to several resources about prehistoric Britain, which proved invaluable. I am also grateful to Richard Bates in Britain, who put me in touch with his colleague, Caroline Wickham-Jones, at the University of Aberdeeen (she led me to a number of good resources about Mesolithic Britain, including her excellent book, Scotland’s First Settlers, Graham Warren’s Mesolithic Lives in Scotland, and Margaret Elphinstone’s novel, The Gathering Night, which is set in Mesolithic Scotland.).

A special thanks to the Writers’ League of Texas (WLT) for their wonderful annual conference, their workshops and writing retreat, their excellent advice, and for all the friends and contacts I have made through the organization.

Many others also entered the picture in various ways: Eric Berger of the Houston Chronicle (Hurricane Rita information); Sharon Keating (Omni Royal New Orleans info); Bob Marshall of the New Orleans Times Picayune (for designing an incredible interactive timeline of the effects of Hurricane Katrina); and all the members of my two writer’s critique groups (for their great advice and critiques over the past several years). Thanks to all of you.

Finally, my deepest gratitude to Carol Dawson, who — at the 2013 WLT Summer Writing Retreat — taught me, among other things, to edit ruthlessly. Thanks, Carol.

Michael Sirois, 2014, Spring, Texas

The Jagged Man

by

Michael Sirois

"Cavete qui crura prava habent,

nam corda prava quoque habeant"

"Beware of those who have crooked legs,

for they may also have crooked hearts."

Quintus Lucius Laberius, Contra Malum, circa 80 BC

"When the levee broke now, baby,

Dirty water come rushing in."

Chris Thomas King, Baptized in Dirty Water, 2006

CHAPTER ONE

6151 BC

Before Dawn — Island of Lekhua

Mendthu stopped at the edge of the cliff and turned to confront the two prisoners. He knew what he had to do now. His status in the tribe depended on it. He could see Otha still struggling to get free, but Oreiha, face bruised and bloodied, stood silently beside her son.

Mendthu said, Your presence among the Jendtha is an abomination. It has angered the gods. Pointing toward the abyss, he said, Are you willing to give yourselves to them, or must we remove you from their sight?

Otha glared at Mendthu. I was born a Jendtha, as you were. What wrong have we done?

Mendthu said, Others were born after you. Some have grown old and feeble, and some have died, but you are still unbearded. How many winter knots do you have?

Otha fingered the four strips of leather braided into his long hair. Three of them contained twelve knots each. The fourth strip had only six knots. He held them outward and said, You can see for yourself. I have twice as many winters as you.

Ignoring the contempt in Otha’s voice, Mendthu continued, And your mother appears no older than you. This unnatural magic has made the gods angry. We are starving, and it is because of both of you. I ask you again. Will you give yourselves freely to the gods?

He waited for an answer. Not receiving it, he turned to the others. Throw them over. No platforms will be built for their bodies. Their meat will be food for animals.

He stepped to the edge, and watched as Otha and Oreiha were hurled over the cliff, into the darkness below.

* * *

Oreiha hit the side of the cliff first. Otha heard the sound of her bones crack an instant before his own fall was disrupted when his right leg slammed into an out-jutting rock, spinning him slightly forward. The pain was intense, flaring along his entire thigh. He broke into an instant sweat. A fraction of a second later, he felt his back scraping along the side of the cliff, even through his deerskin tatheta. Time seemed to slow down. The pain in his leg had already dulled, and he was experiencing the fall now from two perspectives. He saw himself rushing downward, but his mind was also aware of his broken leg, as if they were two separate events. This viewpoint ended a moment later when his injured leg connected with the cliff again.

Once, twice, three times.

He reached a hand out toward the cliff.

Four.

Now there was nothing but pain. And the rush into darkness.

Then the cliff face intervened again, grazing, pounding. He rolled outward, heading inexorably toward the rocky beach below. His mother had preceded him, and he could clearly see her crumpled form as he descended the final twenty feet.

The limb of a tree, which had managed to force its way outward from a crevice in the rocky base of the cliff, grabbed at the sleeve of his tatheta, slowing the last moment of his fall, but he still landed with immense force on the rocky beach.

He was facing Oreiha, only yards away, but unable to move. His right leg had reformed into a twisted series of angles. His thigh was broken once, and his lower leg several times. His left forearm was also bent backwards above the wrist. His entire body throbbed dully as blood pulsed in and around his injuries. Surprisingly, he was wasn’t bleeding much. The blows the cliff had dealt him were severe, and the damage to his leg and wrist were great, but somehow he was still alive. He could see the waves lapping at the beach, could smell the salt air, and was aware of the faint hint of light appearing where the sky met the sea. The sun god would greet him before he died. He closed his eyes and waited.

CHAPTER TWO

Friday, August 12, 2005

Early Morning — Houston, Texas

The alarm went off for the second time, but Sarah Brown wasn’t ready to get out of bed yet. She hadn’t slept well. This morning’s meeting had been cycling through her thoughts all night. She draped herself sideways across the bed, letting her arms and shoulders dangle off the edge. The muscles in her upper back were annoyingly tight, and the stretch felt good.

I should have spent less time pounding the heavy bag last night, she thought. Some t’ai chi should help.

She paused in the kitchen just long enough to slug down a couple of inches of yesterday’s cold coffee from her favorite mug before crossing her back yard, feeling the dew leap from the grass to her bare ankles as she walked. The moisture was heavier than usual. It looked like it might rain any minute, but rushing through the t’ai chi forms wasn’t an option.

Relaxing into her opening position in the shade of her pecan tree, she began to slowly glide through the 108 Forms, a series of t’ai chi movements she had been practicing for years. One movement led to another, each shift of limb providing a balance point for the rest of her body. Focusing on the transitions between each shift would usually clear her mind, but today she couldn’t ignore what her boss, Bonnie, had said. The meeting could be vital to the success of their program.

A drop of rain landed on her nose. It looked like it was going to be one of those days.

Morning — New Orleans, Louisiana

For someone his age, Otha moved remarkably well; but today, sweating in the muggy Louisiana heat, he knelt with some difficulty near the concrete base of one of the city’s levee walls. As he lowered the tube filled with C-4 into the deep narrow hole he had dug, his right pants leg shifted, revealing a gnarled calf muscle, twisted and warped like a bristlecone pine.

His current identity, one of the thousands he had adopted over the centuries, was Henry Warner, a civilian employee of the Army Corps of Engineers. It had proved to be an ideal cover for the scheme he was putting into place now. The tube of explosives he had just lowered into the ground, along with a burner phone and detonator, was the twenty-third and final one. He had planted them at several key locations along the levees, and had sealed them all with care, because he wouldn’t detonate them until a large storm targeted the city.

Everyone knew that New Orleans was perfectly placed for disaster, below sea level and surrounded by water, most of it kept out only by the levees that encircled the city. The beauty of this plan was that he could now detonate the explosives remotely, whenever he wished. If he set them off correctly, the fishbowl that was New Orleans would be completely filled with water, and the evidence of human intervention would be washed away in the flood.

Struggling to his feet, he willed his twisted leg to force him upright, and finished tamping dirt into the hole, making sure the solar cell and an inch of the wire antenna were barely visible in the grass, but still exposed to the sunlight. Glancing up, he noticed a small boy, maybe eight years old, standing on top of the levee wall, staring down at him.

What you doing, mister? the boy asked.

Taken aback for a second, Henry forced a smile. Well, hi, son. I didn’t see you up there. Shouldn’t you be in school?

Yes, sir. But I got time. I walk the wall most of the way. My school’s over there. He pointed to the south, swiveling on the wide wall with the ease of youth.

Oh, good. Well, I’m ...running some tests on this part of the levee. I just buried some equipment to tell us how safe it is. That’s a good thing, right?

I guess.

Henry wondered how much the boy had seen, and knowing that little kids have big mouths, he shifted gears. You, know, you could help me with this experiment. Are you out here a lot?

Yes, sir. Near every day.

What’s your name?

Rashaun. What’s yours?

My name is Henry. Would you keep an eye on this for me, Rashaun? Just to make sure no one messes with it? I could pay you.

How much?

Sharp kid. Maybe too sharp.

How about twenty dollars a month? I could meet you back here once a month, and then I’d feel the wall was in good hands. That sound okay to you?

Sure, Rashaun said, unable to contain his grin. Twenty sounds real good.

Okay, then. Do you go to school the same time every day?

Yes, sir.

Then I’ll be here on the first day of each month to give you twenty dollars. You’ll save me coming out here every few days to check on it. Can you do that?

Rashaun nodded.

Tell you what, I’ll give you twenty dollars now for the rest of this month, even though it’s already started. Sound good?

Henry pulled some bills from his pants pocket, habitually keeping the two shortened fingers of his left hand hidden under the bills. He slipped a twenty out of the fold and stretched up, handing it to Rashaun.

I’ll check on it every day, Rashaun said.

That’s fine, but you have to promise not to touch it or tell anybody.

How come?

Because they might damage it, and then the experiment would be ruined. Just look and see if this wire and this little square thing are sticking out of the ground.

What’s the square thing?

Oh. It’s a solar cell. It lets the sun keep the experiment charged up.

Cool.

Just make sure they’re okay, but don’t touch them.

Okay.

And promise not to say anything.

I promise.

All right. See you September 1st.

Rashaun continued walking along the levee wall toward his school, but turned back once to wave. Henry returned it, and smiled his most sincere smile, all the while calculating the many ways the plan could fail now, some of them because of this one small boy.

Maybe he’ll just do as I asked, and not wonder what’s buried here. And, if he does get too curious, I’ll be gone anyway.

The next thing Henry had to do was stop being Henry.

Sometimes finding the right person could take months. It had to be someone who was similar in appearance, roughly forty years old, reasonably close to his height and weight, with few or no family ties. The rest of his appearance, things like hair and eye color, could be modified easily, and the shoe lift for his warped right leg helped him walk with a reasonably normal gait. Almost anything could be accomplished if one didn’t mind the pain and effort involved. And he didn’t.

Now it was time for breakfast. Café du Monde would do.

He hated mankind, but loved good food. He smiled at the contradiction.

Morning — Houston, Texas

Juan Rodriguez — Dr. Rodriguez to his students, John to his friends — was attempting to study some images of the Medinet Habu papyrus, circa 1100 BC, but the sound of the rain playing percussion on his window sill was ruining his concentration. The actual papyrus would arrive here at Rice soon, but all he had now were the grainy pictures Arthur Palmer had posted on an academic listserv.

The Cairo Museum was allowing the priceless document, named after Medinet Habu — the Egyptian temple complex where it had been discovered — to be examined by only six researchers in the United States, for just over a month each. Dr. Palmer had been the first to get it, Kenton Sawyer had it at Princeton now, and a week into September it would be John’s turn.

The images were terrible. The document appeared to be fairly well-preserved for a three-thousand year old document, but the hieratic script, although probably well defined on the papyrus itself, looked fuzzy on his screen. Arthur had taken the pictures through glass, and had focused them badly. Lens flare had also obscured some details; and — even worse — the images were tiny, just 640x480 pixels.

Hieratic script had a fairly standardized orthography, grammatical rules which made it easier to understand. This papyrus was unusual, though. It contained an odd mix of styles, and its message was odd. Unlike most documents from this era, often bills of lading or household records of wealthy merchants, this was about a person.

John spoke to his monitor, as if willing it to improve the image. "How does that translate? Rough? Jagged? A jagged man? No. THE jagged man? That can’t be right. What could that mean, the jagged man?"

The document was puzzling. Was it political? Religious? A prophecy? No, it felt more like a warning. Like it wanted everyone to be aware of this person.

But jagged can’t be the right word. It just can’t be.

Translating something from another language, especially a long-dead one, was always a tricky proposition. This one was clearly going to be difficult, and John didn’t want to waste his time with the papyrus after it arrived. He wanted to preserve enough detail for his own research, and — unlike what he was seeing on the screen right now — he wanted to maintain good copies for other researchers too. He needed some geek help. Time to call Stu.

* * *

Stu was desperately attempting to fight off a pack of Vilebranch Trolls when his phone rang. He paused the game and tapped the control on his gaming headset.

Hello, this is Stuart Cleaver.

Hi, Stu. It’s John.

John, buddy. What are you up to?

I need some tech advice.

You should trade in your piece-of-crap cell phone for a Blackberry. Anything else?

My cell phone is just fine, thank you. It sends and receives phone calls. No, I need some help with a research project. An ancient document is going to arrive here soon, and I’m going to have it all to myself for a few weeks.

Stu had to reorient his brain for a second to realize that John wasn’t talking about a document from World of Warcraft. Okay. What are you trying to do with it?

This is a huge deal. I need to find the best way to thoroughly record my work on it, but I also want to have high quality pictures of it available for other researchers.

You need to do a website for it, then. You could describe the project, and have thumbnails that link to larger images. You could even use a blog to report your progress.

A blog?

Yeah, it’s short for web log. It’s like a diary. Your other researchers could add their own comments and stuff to it.

Can you help me put that together?

Sorry, John. No can do. O-Week starts in two days. I’ll be up to my armpits in student requests for tech support, and once the faculty gets here I’ll really go crazy.

In other words, if luddites like me weren’t always asking for favors you might be able to get some work done?

Stu laughed, Your words, not mine.

Do you know anyone else who could do it

Maybe a comp-sci grad student or... No, wait, I know who. Bonnie Lincoln hired a new program manager about a month ago, Sarah Brown. You should ask her. I’ve seen the websites she’s doing for Bonnie’s center. They are outstanding.

I can’t just co-opt someone else’s employee.

No, but maybe Bonnie would let you borrow her for a while. She’s worth checking out.

Ah, what you mean is she’s attractive, and you think I should get to know her.

Not just attractive. She’s supremely hot.

There was a silence in Stu’s earpiece before he heard John say, Stu, you know I can’t.

John, it’s been four years.

Look, I appreciate the thought, but I’m just not ready.

All right. Tell you what. Put some of your material on a CD and bring it to me. I’ll take a look at it and see what I can do.

* * *

John sat lost in thought for a moment. Almost four years ago, his wife, Pilar, had died in a massive car wreck. After the accident, he had railed for months against drunk drivers, against God, against liquor stores, and anything else that crossed his mind. The other driver’s blood alcohol level had been more than twice the legal limit, and he had survived with no more than some bruises and a few scratches; but Pilar, pinned inside the crumpled wreckage, was alive when her battered gas tank erupted into flames, engulfing the vehicle.

When John returned to Rice three weeks after her burial, he threw himself into his work with a purposefulness that bordered on obsession, hoping it would help him forget. He ignored everything else so completely that even the events of 9/11 had seemed like mere background noise to him. As the years passed, he grudgingly settled into a pseudo-normalcy that allowed him to function, but the desire to form a new relationship had eluded him so far.

He did need Stu’s help, though, so he burned some text and images onto a CD, grabbed his umbrella, and told Marge, the History Department’s office manager, that he was heading across campus.

Morning — Houston

The two travel mugs had identical logos, advertising Bonnie Lincoln’s educational center at Rice University. More importantly, as far as Sarah was concerned, they were both filled with fresh, hot, extremely strong coffee. Sarah took a big slug of hers. I think the person who discovered coffee should be given sainthood.

She already has been, in Seattle, Bonnie replied.

Ah, Starbucks-slash-Feminist humor?

What, not funny?

You keep giving me caffeine, and I’ll laugh at anything, even jokes like that. Remind me why we had to get dressed up, and why we’re driving in the rain to see the guy I don’t work for anymore.

Sarah had been teaching technology classes in the Houston Independent School District for twelve years when Bonnie hired her to manage some educational outreach programs at her center. Today they were on their way to the HISD district office to discuss one of those programs, FUNTECH, Female Users of New Technology.

Bonnie said, "We’re dressed up because, unfortunately, we can’t wear jeans and t-shirts every day, and we’re here to see the superintendent because — even though we don’t need his permission to do a computer science camp for girls — we are going to hire HISD teachers as facilitators.

Sarah said, So, this is basically a courtesy call to let him know that we think his teachers are great, and that we’re going to provide ten of them — and about a hundred of their students — with additional opportunities, blah, blah, blah. Right?

Absolutely, but ditch the blah, blah, blah.

Will do. Should I mention the problem I’m having with my contract?

No. We’ll handle that separately.

Back in June, when Bonnie told Sarah she wanted to hire her, Sarah thought she was joking, but Bonnie — persuasive as always — convinced her the job would be perfect for her. She was now in charge of running two programs designed to encourage more girls to enter tech fields like computer science. Despite Bonnie’s faith in her, Sarah was still uneasy. This was managing, not teaching. She had just started to settle into the routine when the problems with her contract began, and the situation had been bugging her for weeks now.

Oh, well. One step at a time.

She asked Bonnie, What if he says he doesn’t want any HISD teachers involved?

Why would he say that?

I don’t know.

Well, if he did, we would find a different way, maybe we’d work with one of the suburban districts. Trust me.

Not having a follow-up, Sarah asked, How are the kids and Marcus?

They’re fine. Dameon still insists on going to Duke next year, but I’m hoping Tamara will go to Rice, and not just because of the free tuition. Maybe the Lincoln clan will end up with two engineers in the family yet. I did tell you about the free tuition, didn’t I?

Sarah laughed. About a million times, yes. Kids of Rice faculty and staff get a free ride. First, I’d have to actually find someone, then I would have to keep a relationship going long enough to get married and have kids, and then hang on at Rice for another eighteen years. I don’t see that happening. Not with my track record.

Her mind drifted to an image of a cozy little house, occupied by two people who loved each other. It wasn’t a thought based on sexual desire. She’d had two lovers in college, and a few more during her twelve years at Riley Middle School. Something always went wrong. She just didn’t seem to be able to hold on to men.

It must be my fault, she thought. A few of them seemed willing enough. Somehow, I always manage to let relationships grow stale and wither.

Bonnie’s voice broke the reflection. You asked about Marcus too?

Oh, Right. How is he?

He’s great. I have some good news and some bad news, though.

You’re firing me already?

Lord, no. The good news is that Marcus is wrapping up the bridge project in California next week, and he’s coming back to Texas for at least four or five years. Here’s the Taj Mahal.

Bonnie pulled into a parking slot around the side of the administration building. It was rare to find an empty space this close.

Why do you suppose everyone calls it the Taj Mahal? Sarah asked. It doesn’t look anything like it. It’s just a big, ugly, square concrete building.

I have no idea. Look, the rain’s letting up a little. Let’s make a break for it.

As they dodged the sprinkles, Sarah shouted, So, what’s the bad news?

Oh, Marcus misses us, and wants to be near us from now on.

I don’t get it. How’s that bad?

For the next four or five years he’s going to be living in Corpus Christi while he finishes another project — and so am I and the kids.

You’re leaving Rice?

No, of course not, Bonnie said. At least, I hope not. The work we’re doing in the center is too important. Come on, I’ll explain while we look for the board room.

As they wandered through the mazelike interior that always reminded Sarah of an Escher painting, stairs going in all directions, Bonnie said, Nothing is going to happen immediately, but in a few weeks we’re moving to Corpus Christi to live in a rental house with Marcus.

Are you going to telecommute?

Part of the time. It’s two-hundred miles to Corpus, so I know I can’t drive back and forth every day, but I do have a plan. We’re going to keep our house here, and I’ll stay in it when I’m in town. Marcus swears he’s going to retire after this job, so we’ll come back here to live anyway. I’ll work here Tuesday, Wednesday, and half of Thursday, and then I’ll drive back to Corpus. That’s two-and-a-half days here, four-and-a half-days there. I’ll still be in the office nearly three days out of five, and I can handle everything else online and by phone.

Do you think you can make that work?

I think so. Being organized is going to be the hard part. If I forget something, I won’t be able to just hop in my car and go get it. Oh, there’s one other thing that will have to change.

What’s that?

You’re going to have to do some of my traveling for me. To conferences and meetings, things like that. We’ll talk about it some more when we’re done here. Okay?

Okay, Sarah said, without much enthusiasm.

Early Morning — Houston

Jake Bukowski was driving on the feeder road of Interstate 59, because he was sure his 1985 Chevy Cavalier would die if he tried to get up on the freeway. Droplets of rain attacked the left side of his face through the slightly open window, thanks to the long-dead A/C. He just hoped the car would last until he could afford to buy something else.

A hulking SUV veered toward him, and nearly clipped his left fender. Jake honked and flipped him the bird.

Asshole, he thought. Driving would be a hell of a lot easier if there weren’t so many stupid people on the roads.

Another car came up fast on his right, and edged in his direction.

Jake shouted, Watch out, moron. Pick a damn lane and stay in it, jerkwad.

The moving van in front of him slowed suddenly, filling his vision with a huge metal wall. He couldn’t see anything else. Taking a chance, he darted into the left lane and pulled alongside the van.

Okay, that’s cool, he muttered. I can still make the light.

The light turned yellow, so he floored it. Oily smoke projectile-vomited from his tailpipe. The SUV in front of him stopped dead. He slammed to a halt, two inches away from a huge repair bill.

Nobody stops on the yellow in Houston. Or the red half the time.

Idiot, he said.

He managed to make it to work at the used car lot without killing himself or anyone else, and parked behind the office, as his boss had suggested weeks ago, so as to not diminish the appearance of the lot. There weren’t any customers there yet, so he booted his company computer and started going through the sixty-seven spam messages that had accrued overnight.

‘Accrued.’ A word that wasn’t in Jake’s vocabulary.

He started reading through the messages one by one.

Do Your Butt Thighs and Waist Embarass You?

Hell, yes, but what business is it of yours?

He clicked on the Unsubscribe link at the bottom of the message, deleted it, and kept working through his Inbox.

Like to Revurse the Ageing Process?

Would you like to kiss the rosy red butt I’m embarrassed of?

Do You Need a Date?

Duh.

Want Larger Breasts?

Not really. My man-boobs are big enough, thank you.

He didn’t understand it. He never replied to any of them, no matter how tempting they might be. He always unsubscribed, but they just kept coming, and it was getting worse lately. He wished one of them would offer him a perfect solution for getting rid of spam, like Hit Men Available for Crazy Drivers, Spammers, and Ex-girlfriends.

At the moment, he was mostly hoping to just get through the day without being fired. He hadn’t been selling many — okay, any — cars lately. They wouldn’t carry him on the payroll much longer if he didn’t start making some sales.

Maybe I should follow up on a few of my leads.

The thought lasted about as long as it would take a snowflake to melt in Houston in July. He didn’t have any good leads anyway. Besides, his boss wasn’t there yet.

I’ve got time to play a few hands of solitaire.

Morning — New Orleans

Henry parked at the paddleboat dock, and strolled the two blocks to the Café du Monde. It was filled to capacity, not unusual for a summer morning. Seeing no empty tables, he wandered across the covered courtyard until he spotted a man sitting alone, eating beignets, trying desperately to keep from spilling massive amounts of powdered sugar on his tweed jacket.

A sport coat in the summer?

Interestingly, the man looked like a good candidate for a new identity. He was the right size, about five-foot-eight, probably in his mid-forties, some gray stubble covering his slightly squared jaw. Aside from the beard, the resemblance to Henry was remarkable. Not a doppelganger, but too similar to dismiss without investigating.

Henry made his way over to the man, and said, It’s incredibly crowded in here. Mind if I join you?

The man replied with a noticeable French accent, No, of course, please sit down.

Pointing to the sugary pastry, Henry remarked. "Beignets. They’re tasty, but messy. Vous êtes français? J'ai remarqué votre accent."

"Yes, monsieur. I am French. Are you? Pardonnez mois, I’m practicing my English. I have been given a teaching position, and I want to make sure I’m understood."

"No, I’m not French, but I do speak the language, un peu, a little. A teaching position? Here in New Orleans?"

"No, monsieur, as a professor of history at Rice University."

Ah, in Houston. An excellent school, Henry said, thinking a university might be a good place to set up camp next. Engendering turmoil in young minds had always been a worthwhile pursuit. He had stirred up trouble on college campuses before — Kent State, Berkeley — but never as a professor. Probing gently, he added, And history, such a wonderful subject, one of my favorites. Do you specialize in a particular area?

Ancient history. The Middle East and Mediterranean Cultures.

Appropriate, Henry thought. I’m somewhat ancient myself.

He flagged down one of the waiters, and ordered beignets and cafe au lait. When the waiter was gone, he leaned forward and extended his hand. Sorry. I didn’t introduce myself. I’m Henry Warner.

A pleasure to meet you, Mr. Warner. My name is Claude Vieuxos.

Please, call me Henry.

Of course. Then you must call me Claude.

As they sipped their coffee, Henry tried to find out as much as possible about this windfall of a person. It was too good to believe. A near-perfect identity, appearing at exactly the right time? Most importantly, Henry discovered that Professor Vieuxos hadn’t been to Houston yet. He had been interviewed by video at the Sorbonne earlier in the year, and had been hired on the basis of his curriculum vitae and some professional recommendations. When he revealed that he would be in New Orleans for a few more days, Henry offered to give him a guided tour. Claude accepted, and Henry agreed to pick him up at his hotel that afternoon.

Henry smiled at him and thought, This seems far too easy. Let’s see what else I can discover about you later today.

Morning — Houston

John walked across the quad in the light drizzle, dragging the weight of Medinet Habu along with him, his gaze searching the grass for answers. The phrase jagged man didn’t feel right. Was it a descriptor? It couldn’t be a name. Wouldn’t a name be separated or marked somehow, the way a royal name would be embedded within a cartouche? ‘Jagged’ wasn’t isolated that way. He could think of a number of adjectival qualifiers to describe someone’s appearance — a fat man, a strong man — but how could someone be jagged?

He stepped onto Duncan Hall’s portico and banged his umbrella on the sidewalk, knocking off as much water as possible before going inside. Stu’s office was on the third floor, so he headed toward the open staircase at the back of the expansive room that greeted visitors to the building. Like most of them, his eyes widened to take in the riotous patchwork of colors in the ornate mural on the ceiling.

Amazing, he thought. I’d never get any work done here. I’d be staring at the ceiling all day long.

At the top of the stairs he worked his way around the iron balustrade, past the turquoise and black Egyptian-style papyriform columns, to the tangerine-colored back hallway. Stu was in his office, feet up on the desk, keyboard in his lap, head bobbing to the music on his headphones.

John shouted, Who’re you listening to this time?

Stu pulled his headphones off. "Hey, John. It’s Joe Henry. His Tiny Voices album."

I don’t think I’ve ever heard him.

"Actually, you probably have. He played