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Three hours later, Freedy was dressed in a new set of clothes that fit him perfectly. A green striped button down shirt and brown sweater and slacks, and some shiny black loafers.
The outfit was already laid out on the bed when he came into the room, which was like the nicest hotel room he'd ever been in. (Not that it was fancy, but everything was solid, the trimmings adding a touch of class.)
He took a long shower and then let himself have a short nap. His hair was tangled in the back in the shape of the pillow crease, and no matter how much he wet and combed it, a cowlick waved in the front.
His thoughts kept going to Sheila.
She was the kind of girl he'd never had the courage to talk to when he was younger man. Cheerleader type, blond hair and upturned nose. Sometimes he had to remind himself that he wasn't that old. Not much over thirty years old -- well, thirty-three to be exact. She might be in her early twenties. It wasn't impossible.
After all, he was Freedy Filkins, Master Thief, Adventurer, Companion to Gold Miners and Agents (or whatever Garland was...) !
He tamped it down. She was just being nice, for goodness sake!
He opened the door at 5:45 and she was sitting on the bench in the hallway.
"Why didn't you knock?" he exclaimed.
She smiled at him, but looked distracted. "I didn't want to bother you. Besides, I had some things to think over." She looked momentarily depressed.
Freedy wanted to reach out to her, but didn't dare. But she looked up and saw the concerned look in his face.
"Nothing serious!" she said, and reached up and flipped his cowlick playfully. "Come on. Elias doesn't like it when we're late."
Not surprisingly, the inside of the Cozy Cottage was a maze of hallways and stairs. Freedy had quickly lost count of the turns upon arrival -- he was sure it was just coincidental that it had the effect of keeping them trapped.
Now, on the way out, he was equally lost. It seemed to him that they were headed back to his own room within a short time, the hallway looked exactly the same. No numbers, no directions. But they ended up at the main elevator, and he felt a sense of relief as they descended to the main entrance hall again.
They went around the stairs at the center, and there was a grand ballroom to the right, and a slightly smaller dining room to the left.
The dining hall was every bit as impressive as he expected. They were clustered at just one end of the huge gleaming oak table. A chandelier made of stripped branches and colored glass. A few mounted animal heads that Freedy realized were actually works of art, as alive-seeming as anything that gamboled the grounds outside.
At the head of the table was one of the interns -- or so Freedy thought at first. As they approached, his estimate of the man's age grew and grew, until standing right in front of him, Freedy realized that the flawless sculpted features were crafted by a knife, the skin was burnished with oils, and the hair was -- a little too perfect to be real. Every while gleaming tooth was just the right size and shape.
But when the man rose from his chair, Freedy recognized a fellow weak-back sufferer, and his hands couldn't quite hide the looseness of skin and brown spots.
Garland was standing at his side. "Elias, I'd like to present Freedy Filkins, our -- procurer..."
"Your Thief, you mean," the man laughed with an easy laugh. One didn't learn the ease of that laugh until one had had great success, Freedy thought. That more than anything revealed his age.
"Well, now that we're all here, let's eat," Elias Rivers said. He rang a little bell, and a trio of servants entered, looking every bit as clean cut as the interns.
Freedy sat in the cushioned chair and ate a dinner that wasn't fancy but was filling -- like Thanksgiving out of season. Ham and Au Gratin potatoes, salad and fresh baked bread. He was grateful not to have to tackle any new foods. The wine was the smoothest he'd ever tasted, and he had to slow down drinking it. He was conscious at every moment that Sheila was seated to his left. Garland was seated to his right. Charlie was seated across from him with Jeffry next to him, and on down the table alternated miners and interns. Everyone was dressed so well that the more wine Freedy drank the more difficult it became to distinguish between the two.
The wine seemed to loosen the insecurity and doubts inside him.
Freedy was at heart a small town boy, a big fish in a small pond. Well, not exactly a big fish, but a big enough fish to be able to find his way around the pond. This was all too much.
Sheila seemed to sense his unease, for she talked throughout the meal, telling him about her schooling at Dartmouth, her decision to intern with the great Mr. Elias Rivers, and how she intended to continue onto grad school come the fall.
Freedy was halfway through the meal, before it suddenly dawned on him. A vision of the entry hall and the Signs of the Zodiac bloomed in his mind.
"Oh, my god. The Zodiac Corporation!" he breathed out, suddenly, in the middle of Sheila talking about her -- of all things -- cheerleader days.
It was one of those moments that was so embarrassing that everyone ignored it without skipping a beat. But he could tell they'd all heard him.
"Of course," Sheila said, in a normal tone of voice. "Mr. Elias is the founder and sole shareholder of the Zodiac Corporaton though very few people know his name."
"Do you know what Garland is planning?" He blurted. It occurred to him in his anxiety that he really didn't know what was expected of him. He'd just been going along, assuming that the others knew what they were doing.
"Of course," she said, looking surprised. "Don't you?"
Freedy didn't answer out loud, because he was embarrassed. 'Not really!' he thought. 'What kind of Thief are they expecting me to be?'
'What the hell am I doing here?' he wondered. His computer skills were rudimentary at best. He liked to think that he was pretty good at web surfing, a real Google wiz. But he knew that was just an illusion. In reality, he didn't have a clue. Did they even call it web surfing anymore?
He kept his voice low, the wine talking urgently. "I don't know anything about computers. Why am I here?"
"Computers?" Sheila said. "That's easy. You can hire a thousand guys to do what you need, Freedy. No -- it's the ideas that count. I'm betting that Mr. Garland doesn't recruit just anyone."
Freedy was starting to panic. He wasn't so sure. This was all a big mistake. He should be home, watching television. Going for a walk. Reading a book.
Sheila reached out under the table and grabbed his hand. "Don't worry. I'll help you."
Freedy closed his eyes. It was as if she was pumping a sedative in him. He forced himself not to clamp down too hard on her soft little hand.
Finally, he opened his eyes and smiled at her.
Somehow, he knew that she meant it and that it would all turn out all right.
6 days ago