This post is a response to April 2018’s mid-month short story challenge. Click on the link in the previous sentence to read the prompt, share your story, and read those written by others.
Matthew and I joked about it regularly throughout middle and high school. The sacred jade pendant and all of its mystical powers. It was silly, childish stupidity where we attempted to mock the absurdity of religion without actually being good at doing so in a nuanced manner. Matthew’s grandmother had given him this necklace with a triangular jade pendant hanging from a black rope. He wore it somewhat regularly, particularly during track season where it served as his good luck charm before races. It was a cool piece of jewelry, as well as the start of a great joke, but that was the extent of my attachment to it.
While I was in Manila for a work trip last fall, I visited one of the large local markets near my hotel. In one of my previous trips to the Philippines, I had purchased two pairs of knock-off Converse high tops, one in the iconic black and white and the other in a forest green and construction orange combination that further served to show these weren’t the real deal. I went back to the same market, hoping to find an equally absurd pair of shoes. Instead of the shoes, I walked away with a jade necklace — its pendant shaped in an acute scalene triangle similar to the one Matthew had owned — and a tin toy jeepney for my daughter.
I’ve been back in the states for six months now, frequenting my usual brunch spot on the weekends and driving my daughter, Valerie, to her hockey games on weeknights. Valerie typically joined me for my Saturday morning visits to the cafe, though my parents had her for the weekend. A little time with grandma and grandpa always provided me with a welcome mental reprieve from the job of being a single father. The downside was that I had to spend the next two weeks dealing with the after effects of Valerie’s exposure to my mother’s smoking and my father’s inability to filter out his cursing when around a nine-year-old.
I stared out the window into the foggy Ohio morning. It seemed like every September morning was filled with a fog so thick that machetes struggled to dent it, only for the clouds to burn off by nine or ten in the morning. Today was one of the few days where the mist persisted as the afternoon neared. Though I was parked right outside of the window, my car’s headlights taunted me through the fog, laughing at me for venturing out in this mess.
Behind me, I heard the front door of the cafe open. A tall, raven haired woman walked through the door and directly to the register, her outfit from head-to-toe doing its best to match her midnight locks. Though her smooth, straight hair flowed down to her shoulders, it was held back by a black headband with tiny silver accents. The chill in the air necessitated her donning a black fabric trench coat which ended just below her knees. Her long coat blended into her black stockings, which themselves transitioned naturally into her black, thick-heeled shoes. Her attire was so monochromatic that I wouldn’t have paid such close attention to it were it not for one lone pop of color that caught my eye.
A triangular jade pendant hanging from her neck.
It had to be a weird coincidence. She’s just a woman who really like jade. And why wouldn’t she? Jade is quite the beautiful mineral, be it on its own or inset into something else. She was a woman good taste and nothing more.
I broke my trance-like stare into the distance, only to realize the woman had left the cashier and was now standing just a few feet in front of me.
“Excuse me?” she repeated. She was staring intently at my own jade pendant. “Is this a safe place to talk?”
“I…what?” I stammered.
“Is this a safe place to talk?”
“I’d imagine so. I’ve come here most every Saturday for ten years and haven’t been yelled at once for having a conversation.”
The woman leaned in closer to me.
“I don’t mean to chat,” she whispered. “Can they hear us?”
“Who hear us?” I said at a normal volume. She slapped my leg.
“Keep your voice down if it isn’t safe. Come to my car with me. It’s safe there.”
“I don’t even know who you are.”
“I’ll explain there. Just trust me.”
“Can I bring my bagel and coffee?” I asked.
“I don’t care what you do as long as you come on,” she said.
We walked out of the cafe into the dissipating fog. She pointed to a blue sedan with darkly tinted windows. With a push of a button on her key chain, the doors sprang open. She motioned for me to get in the passenger’s side. I did, shutting the door behind me. I didn’t feel great about getting in the car with a strange woman, but I didn’t see a better alternative without causing a scene.
“Now that we’re in the car, will you tell me what’s going on?” I implored. “And who you are for that matter.”
“Communications jammers are still booting up,” she said. “You can call me Keri.”
“Okay, Keri. Why am I here?”
“Eat your bagel and wait ten seconds, would you?”
I obediently took a bite out of my bagel, trying hard not to get crumbs on her seats. Keri grabbed my coffee from between my knees and placed it in the cupholder between our seats, just in front of her own cup.
“Clear,” she said. “What is your name?”
“Yancey,” I replied.
“Not your public name. Your cloak name.”
“My what now?”
“The jade,” Keri said, pointing to my pendant. “Your pendant signifies you’re an elder of the Sacred Jade.”
I began laughing hysterically, nearly dropping my bagel in the process. Keri, clearly trying her hardest not to slap me, gave me a half smile while I composed myself.
“Oh…oh god,” I said, wiping tears away from the corners of my eyes. “That’s something I haven’t heard in a long time. How is Matthew?”
“Matthew Henson. He clearly put you up to this to fuck with me. Classic Matthew.”
“How has he been? I haven’t heard from him in years! Are you his wife?”
“Yancey!” Keri shouted, visibly growing impatient with me. “Are you an elder of the Sacred Jade or not?”
“Considering how serious you’re taking this, I’m going to guess I’m not.”
Keri started the car and began pulling out of her parking space. Very quickly.
“Hold up. Where are we going?” I asked.
“I went to the wrong fucking cafe!” she screamed. “Again! This can’t be happening again.”
“What’s going on?”
“My name is Li-an Ke’ri Balmi. Guru and protector of the Order of the Sacred Jade. And you’re clearly not Elder Rathsuman.”
“Now that we’ve sorted that out, can I go?” I wondered aloud, hoping Keri would let me out before she pulled too far away from the cafe.
“No time,” she said. “The Agate Templar is coming after him.”
“Do you know how to use a gun?”
“A gun. Bang bang you’re dead. Rooty tooty point and shooty.”
“No!” I yelled. “Why would I know that?”
“Doesn’t matter,” she replied. “You’re going to get a crash course in about six minutes if our timing is bad.”
Keri pointed to the dashboard in front of me.
“Open the glovebox and hit the blue button.”
I followed her instructions, causing a panel to rise out of the dashboard, producing a pair of handguns.
“Keep them on your person at all times,” said Keri. “And pray to the Sacred Jade you don’t need them.”
“Who is the Agate Templar? Why am I here? What is the Sacred Jade?”
“You ask a lot of questions for someone who got into the car with a strange woman after asking so few questions.”
She wasn’t wrong.
“Crash course me then,” I said. “What do I need to know to not die in a few minutes?”
“The Order of the Sacred Jade is an organization committed to the protection of the world’s greatest scientists and scholars. All of the scientific advancement that has been made in the past two millennia has been made thanks largely to our protection of the brightest minds in the world. Our elders help identify the minds that are considered to be lynchpins to society. From there, we protect them from whoever may come after them. Governments and corporations are more likely attackers in modern times, but they’re relatively easy to deal with. The Agate Templar is a rival group who thinks their science is better than our science. They’re much less fun to come across.”
Keri pulled her emergency brake and turned abruptly into a parking lot, leaving her car parallel to the building she parked near. She opened her door and motioned to a man inside wearing a similarly shaped jade necklace. Just as the man opened the door, gunfire rang out.
“Automatic protection mode engaged!” the car said through its speakers. The driver’s door slammed shut, the windshield blackened, and a fine pink mist began to fill the car. I clawed at the door handle, trying my hardest to open it, only to find the door locked. I began to feel dizzy and the seat became infinitely more comfortable.
I woke up and found myself leaned up against the wall in a chair back in the original cafe I had been sitting in earlier that morning. I looked around, baffled how I had gotten back there. I yelled at the cashier to get her attention.
“Maddie. When did I get back here?” I asked.
“What?” she said.
“How long wasn’t I here for?”
Maddie walked out from behind the counter and came closer to me.
“Are you feeling alright, Yancey?” she inquired.
“You’ve been here all morning.”
“No I haven’t,” I insisted.
“Yes. You have. You dozed off about twenty minutes ago and have been leaning against that wall ever since.”
I stared at Maddie, confused why she was telling me all of this. I was in a shootout earlier. Or at the very least shootout-adjacent. There had to be some evidence I could show her to prove my point.
“You haven’t even touched your bagel,” Maddie continued. “It’s probably cold now. The butter won’t melt on it.”
I looked at the bagel on the plate beside me. It was still whole, albeit it cut into two halves, its open parts staring back at me. I know what I had seen.
“Was there a woman in here earlier by the name of Keri?” I asked. “Tall, slender, wore all black?”
I knew it! I hadn’t been making it up.
“Did you know her from somewhere?” Maddie questioned. “I didn’t call out her name when brought her pastry to her.”
“What about her coffee?”
“She didn’t get anything to drink.”
This wasn’t making any sense. I touched at my neck, comforted to find the jade necklace was still there, the pendant hidden beneath my shirt.
“I think I need some air,” I said.
“When you come back in, I’ll make you a fresh bagel and get you some orange juice,” Maddie replied. “It’s on me.”
I walked outside into the foggy September morning. The parking space where Keri’s car had been was empty, with no sign of a burnout anywhere near the spot. My own car was in the same place it had been since I got to the cafe, the low-hanging clouds slowly condensating on my windshield and windows. As I watched the fog hang in the sky, I felt a hand tap me on the shoulder.
“Glad you made it out of there alive.”
I turned around to find Keri, this time dressed in a police uniform, standing behind me.
“What? Where did you come from?”
“We’ve got to get you into protection, Yancey,” Keri stated. “You’re a more valuable asset than you realize. Go back in and get your food. I had Gail make you a few meals for the road. We’ve got a long drive ahead of us.”
“Who’s Gail?” I asked.
“Gail. Taryn. Maddie. Tashia. Whatever she goes by in this town. It’s hard to keep track of when she’s been moved so many times.”
“Where’s my daughter?”
“On the way to the safe house too,” Keri replied. “We’ll rendezvous with my partner there. She’ll make sure you and your daughter are safe while we arrange safe transport to your next location.”
“I thought the Order of the Sacred Jade only protected scientists and scholars,” I said. “I’m a low-level supervisor at a data analysis company.”
“You’re the Agate Templar’s next target,” answered Keri, “but it’s not because of you. It’s because your daughter has the mind that could save the world. Or end it.”
“Yes. Now go grab your food and let’s go. I only bought us so much time earlier today.”
Featured image used under a Creative Commons License. Image by Maureen Didde.