In the last chapter of the second volume, Forsaken, Erik was 20 and had learned that the Shah of Persia wanted to talk to him about building him a palace. Therefore, the Shah has sent his daroga, his chief of police named of Oded, and Oded's man servant named Darius, to fetch Erik and bring him back to Persia so he can talk to him about the construction. Never letting any man control his actions, Erik played with the daroga’s mind. He didn't show himself, but he did talk to him by using ventriloquism. This frustrates and infuriates Oded, but it brings Erik much pleasure. While the two Persians head for their hotel, Erik removes Oded’s watch from his pocket – just to tease him.
The next day, Oded is beside himself for fear he’s lost his watch. Since Erik, by then, realized that the watch is a treasured gift from his wife, he replaces it back in Oded’s pocket. This begins Oded’s suspicions about the culprit. In addition to playing with his watch, Erik decides to use the two men to finalize an experiment he’s been working on.
The scene that follows is Erik’s experiment and his first face to face encounter with the man who became Mon Ami.
The Friendship Begins
Since I’d left my little trainer, I avoided confrontations at all cost. I preferred to slip away and disappear into the shadows rather than fight. If I was confronted with only one or even two men at a time, I could handle the situation without causing any lasting harm. But since tormenters ran in packs, there were often several men at a time who confronted me, testing to the limits my skills with the lasso. I continually feared someone losing his life while I protected mine. So my all-black attire and Libre’s all-black tack were lifesaving devices—the tormenters’ lives, that is.
I’d taken off the silver decorations from her tack so there wouldn’t be anything to reflect light. I hadn’t had a chance to test my theory, and I saw the opportunity the Persians were giving me as a perfect one. Therefore, with Libre tacked, I headed for the dock, getting there before my two would-be escorts. A cold breeze was blowing down the river, so I pulled my cloak across my chest and waited out of sight for them to appear. My thoughts about my Persian opponent were conflicted. I didn’t like playing with his emotions; however, it was such a perfect opportunity to test my theory and his intellect at the same time. So I moved ahead with my game; whose pocket is the watch in?
There were many people waiting on the dock by the time Oded and Darius finally arrived, and I then started my third act. That act would leave them both with unquestionable proof that I was real, and with more questions about me, as well. My hat was pulled down and my head was low as I walked on the crowded dock and slipped past Oded. In the process, I deftly removed his watch from his pocket a second time, and then, just as deftly, left the dock and returned to the trees and Libre. Ten minutes later, the boat arrived and began letting everyone on board, and my two inquisitors moved toward the stern.
“Hurry up and look for your watch,” I whispered.
I was beginning to think I would have to add a cold swim to my performance, instead of a walk to the boat, when Oded finally looked for his watch. When he didn’t find it in his vest pocket, he started patting every pocket and feeling inside them. Then, he quickly turned in circles, searching both the deck and the people. I believe he was carrying on an animated conversation with Darius, since his arms were flying around in the air, as if he were shooing away mosquitoes.
After a few minutes, I thought; time to let him off the hook. So, once more, with my hat hiding my mask, and my ticket and his watch in hand, I walked onto the boat. Next, I moved slowly through the people until I saw my chance to replace his watch. Afterwards, it was a simple move back to Libre where I waited for Oded to realize his possession was in the right pocket.
To my surprise, he left the boat and started searching the dock. But when the boat’s engines started and everyone had to move on board or be left behind, he gave up his search. Once the boat began moving down the Volga River, I followed it. After all my efforts to test that man’s intellect—and drive him mad—I couldn’t possibly let him out of my sight until he once more found his watch.
Needing to stay abreast of the boat, I trotted Libre through the trees on the riverbank. I watched Oded, in an irritated state, standing at the railing with Darius. Finally, he did it. He began patting his pockets until he found his watch. At that time, he turned and seriously looked in all directions. He started walking quickly among everyone on the boat, even removing their hats and looking closely at their faces. I chuckled. He was at last starting to put the pieces in place and was suspecting me as the culprit.
“Good deduction. It didn’t take you too long to become a believer.”
While he searched for me among the throng of people on the boat, I moved Libre out from the shade and into the full sun in plain view. Then he only had to look in my direction—that was all. Finally, after a few minutes of searching for the strange man who was playing with his mind, he saw me. He moved to the side of the boat and leaned far over the railing, looking intently in my direction. I smiled at him and tipped my hat. At that time, he turned momentarily toward Darius and motioned for him to come to the railing.
His moment of distraction gave me the chance I was waiting for. Abruptly, I stopped Libre in a shady spot directly under tree branches. My chance had come. By using his eyes, I would soon know how difficult I was to find in daylight if cloaked in black. When he turned back to the railing with Darius by his side, I leaned over Libre’s neck and sat perfectly still. I talked to her to keep her quiet and calm.
He looked up and down the riverbank and again started waving his hands in the air while talking to Darius. As he searched for me, he held one hand up to his eyes, blocking out the sun. Momentarily, he removed his hand from his eyes long enough to look down at his watch in his other hand. Finally, he’d put the last of the pieces together. He was beginning to believe what Ivan had told him about my mysterious nature of appearing and disappearing. I had to snicker.
Darius must have thought Oded was going mad with his crazy antics. After a few moments without his focusing in on me, my experiment was complete—it had worked. I could be invisible even in the daylight, and that made me feel good. I moved out of the shade and ran Libre until I was again moving abreast of the boat. Then I slowed to a leisurely lope, waiting for Oded to spot me. When he did, he quickly pointed at me, and then they both had their sights locked on me.
I only had one more scene to perform. I wanted to end that performance, like all my performances, with a bow. So, while still at a lope, I stood in the stirrups, removed my hat, spread my arms out to my sides, and bowed in their direction. I wanted that inquisitive Persian to know that everything that had happened was deliberately planned and executed by me and not a series of coincidental events. I wanted them to know I was ending my third and final act and would soon disappear again behind the curtain of trees.
Once back in the saddle, I replaced my hat and smiled at them. I held that position for a few moments, as they held their position on the railing. Next, I pulled Libre to a halt, nodded, and touched my fingers to the brim of my hat. Lastly, I turned and disappeared again up among the trees. As I slipped into the foliage, I heard Oded’s raised and pleading voice come to me over the water.
I smiled again and continued beyond the trees. But, being curious, I followed the boat and watched their reaction to my performance. First, Oded remained at the railing, still shading his eyes as he searched for me. Then, he ran to the pilot room to try, I presumed, to convince the captain to take him back to the dock. I snickered when he came out and again ran to the railing, looking as if he was about to jump overboard. Darius held his arm and spoke to him emphatically. And although I couldn’t hear clearly what they were saying, I could hear their excited voices.
I felt like riding down to the bank again and congratulating him for his tenacity and his keen observation. Not every man had the patience and intellect to put all the pieces of my game in the proper order and then come to the right conclusion. That persistent Persian intrigued me. He was a worthy opponent. I watched as they talked. Darius had his hand on Oded’s shoulder, and I thought they must be good friends. Considering he was a worthy opponent, I’d wager he was also a worthy friend. At that moment, I envied Darius for having Oded as a companion.
I continued to watch them until the boat moved out of sight, and then I headed back to town. As I rode, I thought about the last twelve hours and felt quite satisfied with my unexpected and unrehearsed performances. During those hours, Oded had experienced his first encounters with the mysterious masked man whom he thought he could simply take back to Persia. Silly man, I mused. Foolhardy Persian.
Once I reached the stable, I tacked my horses and headed south, but I still wasn’t sure if I was going to Persia or Italy. I’d had thoughts of stopping my travels and making Italy my home for a year or two. If I did, I could have four walls around me, a real bed under me, and a piano beside me. So, with that thought in mind, I decided it wouldn’t hurt to visit Persia first before planting my feet on Italian soil.
My journey toward Mazenderan was uneventful, that is, until I crossed the Persian border. Then the bizarre life I was more familiar with started to unfold. The evening was cool as I finished tacking my horses and prepared us for another night’s journey. I wrapped my cloak around my shoulders and raised myself onto Molly’s back, while whistling for Libre and Luc to follow.
Soon, the brush became too thick to travel through comfortably, so I moved down onto the moonlit road leading away from Resht and toward Lahijan. About an hour later, I saw in the distance something large lying in the road. I instinctively wrapped my fingers around a coil and pulled it from my pocket. As I drew closer to the object, I could see a horse lying down with its head cradled on a man’s lap. I stopped a safe distance away and waited until the man looked up and pleaded with me.
“Please help me. My beloved horse collapsed, and I can’t get him up.”
I hesitated, but when the horse began to groan, I couldn’t resist his pathetic plea for help. Without releasing my hold on the coil, I slid off Molly. To keep her and Libre out of my way, I tied them to a nearby tree and then cautiously moved toward the man and his horse.
“Thank you for stopping,” he said through what sounded like tears. “I don’t know what happened to him. He simply collapsed.”
I stood a few paces away, examining the horse, while the man stroked his neck and talked soothingly to him. The horse was breathing softly with an occasional groan, but he didn’t look as if he’d been run hard or hurt in any way.
I asked, “When did he drink last?”
“Not too long ago,” was the man’s soft reply.
“Did the water look safe?” I questioned further.
“I guess,” he offered while in thought. “I drank from it.”
“Has he eaten anything different in the last few hours?” I questioned again.
Without looking up at me, the man shook his head and leaned over to kiss his horse’s nose. That was all I needed to see to make me feel more comfortable with the situation. The coil was still in my hand as I knelt down beside the horse and felt his ear, checking for a fever. Not finding one, I placed my hand under his jaw to determine his heart rate. I’d no sooner done so when I heard something behind me. In a split second, I was on my feet, turned, and saw a man about three meters away with a pistol pointed at me. By the time he’d cocked it, the lasso had left my hand and was around his neck. Then within another moment, I was behind him and pulled the noose tight.
“Drop the gun!” I growled.
The words were barely out of my mouth when the other man, who was still on the ground with his horse, also pulled out a pistol. I released the man in my grip, who fell promptly to the ground, and let another lasso fly, hitting its mark. Then, while starting for the man by the horse, I kicked the gun away from the man at my feet. Leaping over the downed horse, I pulled on the lasso, that time with more anger than the first time.
“You fool! Drop it!” I demanded while jerking on his neck.
I held on a few moments more to make certain he didn’t repeat his mistake, and then I let him crumple to the ground. Quickly, I grabbed his pistol and angrily threw it into the bushes. I knew I had to release the coil from the other man before it was too late, so I started for him. But then I heard a sound in the bushes. Again, another lasso was ready for the toss as I turned, but all I saw was a shadowy blur disappear in the foliage. I looked and listened closely for whoever presented me with another threat. But after only one more rustle of the bushes, there was nothing—only silence interrupted by the treetops moving overhead.
I released the coil from the man at my feet, while still watching in the direction of the bushes. I was heading toward the man with the horse, when there was yet another noise in the bushes. I stopped, watching carefully, ready to confront whoever it was. When there was nothing more, I knelt down and uncoiled the lasso from that fool’s neck. As I stood up and coiled the lasso, I watched him closely. When he showed no sign of breathing, I knelt down again and felt for a pulse. But I quickly realized I was too late—he was dead—causing my teeth to grind.
I stayed on one knee beside him with my eyes closed, trying to control my anger—my anger at him for causing me to break my good record. For over three years I’d gone without causing someone’s death, and I was infuriated with that stupid dead fool. I looked at the other man, fearing I might find him dead also. Again I closed my eyes and tried to control my anger. But when I did, I remembered the last time I’d been in similar circumstances at the small lake in Italy. Back then, I’d had one dead man at my side and was watching for the breathing of another unconscious man.
I feared losing control if I found him dead, so I didn’t move. I knew I needed to go to him and see if I could help him in some way, but I couldn’t move. When he started stirring, I felt unbelievable relief. I jumped up and ran to him before he had a chance to get to his feet.
Gently wrapping my fingers around his neck, I turned his head toward his partner and demanded, “Look at your partner. He’s dead!” At first he squeezed his fingers into my wrist, but then his eyes started to fill with tears. “Do you want a similar fate?” I threatened. He nervously shook his head in quick jerks, and I tightened my grasp on his throat and growled in his ear, “Then leave quickly and don’t look back.”
He released his fingers from my wrist, held his hands out to his sides, and nodded. So I slowly released my hold on his neck and backed away. Since I was holding the coil at the ready out in front of me, he understood my meaning and didn’t respond aggressively. For a moment, he just stood there, facing me, rubbing his neck, and breathing deeply. Then he took one last look at his friend and started backing away. Finally, he turned and ran into the bushes.
I again turned slowly in a circle, looking and listening for any other idiot who might be lurking. After a few minutes in that alert position, I looked at the man with the blue face who was left with me. What a shame for someone to lose his life only because he didn’t take the time to know his opponent before doing battle with him. What a shame and what a waste.
I surveyed the scene once more and listened carefully before I relaxed a bit, although I didn’t let go of the coil. I again knelt beside the groaning horse and felt for a pulse. It was slow and weak, like his breathing. I looked into his glazed eyes and knew for certain he wasn’t ill—he’d been drugged.
“You poor thing,” I said softly while stroking his muscled neck. He again moaned as if agreeing with me. “I know you’re tired and only want to sleep, but, my friend, you really need to get on your feet and walk this off, or you’ll be in worse trouble.” I moved to his back, then lifted his head and held it toward his side with the aid of his lead rope. I then began rocking his body off the ground to help give him momentum. “Come on now, old boy. I can’t help you if you’re not going to try a little.” I kept rocking him until he started curling his hind legs and stretching his front legs out, telling me he was trying to get up. “That’s right. A little more. Come on, you can do it.”
After another low groan, he staggered to his feet and shook, releasing dirt from his black coat. While still staying on the alert for more thieves, I walked around him slowly, stroking him all over to ensure he wasn’t injured.
“Well, other than that glazed look in your eyes, you don’t look too bad. Actually, you’re quite a handsome fellow—Yes, handsome indeed.”
Without letting down my guard, I again moved my hands along his spine, across his hind quarters, and down his legs. I stepped back and let my eyes search every part of him, looking for any flaw but finding none.
“I would say you have good breeding—excellent breeding. Now open your mouth and let’s see how old you are. I think—perhaps four. Does that sound close to you?” I asked as I looked into his drowsy eyes. “Oh, you’re not in a talking mood, you say?” I knelt down and checked his tendons, fetlocks, and hooves, and then I moved to his head and continued our one-sided conversation. “I see you’ve been gelded—what a shame. You’ll never have the privilege of passing your magnificent qualities on to another generation.” Laying my forehead against his, I whispered, “Neither will I.”
I looked around again for the fool I’d let go and wondered how that incredible horse had come to be in the company of those thieves. More than likely, they’d taken him out from under some aristocrat’s legs.
He started to lower his head and buckle his front legs, and I knew he was going down. So I raised my hands in the air, clapped them, and spoke loudly. “Come! Let’s get you moving before you go down again.”
Realizing there could still be a horse thief in the vicinity, I decided to tether all my horses together—including the drugged gelding. I mounted Molly and, with my small herd in tow, continued our journey. I looked one final time at the man lying in the road, while thinking, all it takes is one careless mistake and your life can change drastically—even fatally. Stupid fool. We were on the road for a few hours before I could release my anger completely, telling myself that they’d started it—I hadn’t.
The remainder of the night was uneventful. We kept moving south, and I kept a close eye on the black gelding. As the sun was coming up, he started waking up, voicing his disapproval. Feeling he was alert enough to fend for himself, I dismounted and removed his halter, causing him to bolt and take off across the field. I watched him with pure pleasure as he kicked out, whinnied loudly, and loped away. Then he stopped and turned toward me, tossing his head in my direction and snorting. The sunlight was coming over the hill and shining on his black coat, allowing me to have my first good look at him—and that I did.
He was absolutely magnificent in every way. His coloring, his lines, his attitude, his movements, everything about him was perfect, and I recognized his breed easily. I hadn’t seen a Friesian since I was in Venice with my father, but there was only one horse that carried those special qualities, and I would never forget them. He was a Friesian. I continued to watch him as he bolted and trotted up a knoll. Once he stopped, he turned and looked down at us. I admired his beauty for a few more moments before I mounted again and walked my horses up and over the knoll.
On the other side, I found a cluster of trees and a small stream where I decided to stop for the day. Following my normal routine, I first took care of my horses and then played my Stradivarius before I rested. Later that day, we continued our journey. For the next two days, the Friesian followed us closely. On the third day, he decided he wanted my attention and came to me with his head lowered.
“Oh, have you decided to join us?” I questioned, while letting him rest his head against my chest.
The sun was coming up on the fourth day when we again stopped away from the road and under a cluster of trees. I’d stripped Libre and Luc of their tack and was in the process of stripping Molly when she softly nickered. She was looking toward the road, which was on the other side of a knoll. At almost the same time, Libre whinnied, raised her head high, sniffed the air, and then trotted to the top of the knoll. Luc barely raised his nose out of the grass, looked at his friends who’d disturbed his meal, and then buried his nose in the grass again. I looked beyond him to the gelding, and he was also in the same stance as Libre.
Therefore, with an irritated sigh, I tightened Molly’s cinch and mounted again. Wrapping my fingers around a coil, I moved toward the top of the crest. Once I reached it, I couldn’t believe what I saw.
It was Oded and Darius! What a tenacious man, I thought. Why is he still tracking me, and how? I’d been on the road for almost three weeks, so how had he managed to track me all the way from Volgograd without my noticing him sooner?
They had already spotted me, thanks to my loudmouth Libre, so it was too late to hide or slip away. I’d long since learned not to listen to my flight instincts. Too many men are not much different from animals on the hunt—when they see something running, their first response is to chase it. So I never wasted my energy anymore on running. I’d found that a direct confrontation, where I had control of the situation, was much more advantageous than to turn tail and run. I would hide if I had to, but I never ran. Consequently, I stayed put and waited to see what their intentions were.
They headed for me, which didn’t surprise me in the least. Once Oded got close enough, his eyes searched me thoroughly, making me uncomfortable. But then, I was also searching them thoroughly for a weapon. Thankfully, I saw no visible ones on either of them.
While Darius stopped a few meters from me, Oded circled Molly and me slowly, his eyes squinting in the morning sun. “Erik, I presume?”
“You presume correctly,” I answered guardedly.
He made another trip around us and then stopped so close to me that our stirrups touched. My uneasiness increased as his jade eyes looked deep into mine. But when I remembered his benign conversation with Ivan, my apprehension eased somewhat. However, my fingers still held onto the coil—just in case. Darius remained a few meters away on my left and in the perfect spot for me to use the lasso. But Oded, on my right, was in the worst possible position—much too close and watching me intently.
I broke the tense silence by asking, “Didn’t you learn anything from Ivan? Why have you been tracking me?”
“Is that what you think we were doing?” he asked, with a smile hiding in his thick beard. Without a response from me, he changed the subject. “I was wondering, considering the direction you’re riding in, have you decided to go to Mazenderan?”
“I often visit Persia,” was my skirting answer, because I didn’t want to give him the benefit of thinking he’d won me over.
But that persistent Persian wouldn’t let it go. “If you’re not on your way to Mazenderan, then what is your business in Persia?”
“Exactly that—my business.”
I think he sensed my irritation growing, so, holding up one palm toward me, he asked in a friendlier tone, “I only thought that, since we’re traveling in the same direction, perhaps we could ride together?”
“I ride beside no man,” I replied without hesitation. Then, looking intently into his eyes, I finished my thought. “Especially one who wants to lead me to the Shah, as if I were a prized stallion.”
“A prized stallion?” he almost laughed. “Do you really think that highly of yourself?”
Very well, Oded, I thought. You want to play games with me—then let’s play. While returning the coil to my pocket, I smiled, turned in the saddle and took a small, red silk bag out of my saddlebag. I poured its contents into my palm; three gold rings, each with a different large gem embedded in it, and two gold watch chains. I picked up the most expensive chain and returned the rest to the saddlebag. I laid the chain across my hand and held it out in front of me, letting it shimmer in the early sun. He studied it for a moment, while I tried to read his thoughts.
“Anything we treasure we should protect at all costs, don’t you agree?” Without giving him a chance to answer, I continued, “This should help you protect your treasure so it won’t mysteriously change pockets again.”
His eyes narrowed when I stretched out my hand toward his chest, indicating I wanted him to take the chain from my hand.
Still searching my eyes, he said a faint, “Thank you—I think.”
While he was saying that, I curled my fingers back and let the chain slip inside my coat sleeve. By the time he looked back at my open palm, it was empty. His eyes widened before returning to mine.
Tilting my head, I continued, “So far you’ve experienced only a small portion of my abilities. What do you think? Do you still doubt that I can become anything I wish to become—whether it’s a vanishing shadow on a river bank or a proud stallion? Do you need more proof? Do you have more valuable treasures that need protecting? I’ll supply more proof—if you wish. Just say the word.”
I used that opportunity while I was talking to lower my hand just enough to allow the chain to slip from my sleeve and back into my hand without his noticing it. When I was finished speaking, he simply looked at me, desperately trying to respond with appropriate words to quiet my truthful ones.
I smiled and nodded toward the chain in my outstretched hand. “The best place to keep that chain would be on your treasure.”
He glanced at the chain in my hand and then quickly looked at me. Even though his lips said nothing, his eyes said it all. He was amazed and had many questions. But he wasn’t going to give me the satisfaction of asking them, just as I wasn’t going to give him the satisfaction of asking him how he’d tracked me. Therefore, as he took the chain from my hand, I simply changed the conversation, hoping I could get the answers I wanted from another direction.
“Did you not like the captain of your boat? Is that why you left him? Or do you get sea sickness?”
While he started putting the chain on his watch, he smiled and shook his head. “No, I left the boat to find the man I started out to find.” Then he paused as he looked deeply into my eyes. “I never return without the man I’m looking for, Erik. So let’s say your disappearance in the trees that day was like dangling a carrot in front of a donkey.”
I shifted my weight in the saddle and thought; a truly worthy opponent. But I still didn’t want to give him the credit he deserved; therefore, I continued to question him instead.
“No man has had enough reason to track me this far before, so tell me, what’s in this for you? Why am I so important to you and the Shah that you would track me this far?”
“You created the need, Erik. When the Shah heard the mysterious stories about you, he merely wanted to speak with you. If you had shown yourself to me and told me no, I would have left and told the Shah you wouldn’t return with me, but you chose another path. Why did you do that? Why didn’t you simply tell me no? Why did you go to the lengths you did only to increase my curiosity about you?”
“You ask too many questions, Oded. Is this Persia’s hospitality—to interrogate all who cross her borders?”
“Well, interrogation is one of my specialties,” he responded, as a slight frown appeared on his olive brow. “You could say it’s a hobby—just as making things appear and disappear is a hobby of yours. What other hobbies do you have, Erik?”
I didn’t know how long I was going to let his game of cat and mouse continue, but I wasn’t going to answer his continual questions—that was for sure. So, trying to change the direction of the conversation, I asked, “You’re obviously good at asking questions, but are you just as good at answering them? Was it your tracking ability or Darius’ that led you to me?”
He almost laughed before he answered, “I have to be honest with you. We really didn’t track you that far. We got off the boat at the next dock, purchased what we needed to travel inland, and then returned to Volgograd. Once there, we asked the appropriate questions and picked up your trail. But we lost you after only a day. You’re not that easy to track. Did you know that?
“We gave up trying to find you and were on our way to Mazenderan when we came across your trail again two days ago in Resht. It actually happened quite innocently. We heard of a strange death, and, since I am who I am, I quite naturally had to question it. It was in the course of my queries that we picked up your trail again.”
Now the need to run surged through me with those words—strange death. Who was this man, and why did that particular death interest him? My fingers took the proper position around the coil again, as I asked a question that I really didn’t want answered.
“Is death also one of your hobbies?”
“No, not really a hobby,” he responded, as his eyes and voice took on a more serious nature. “You see, I’m the daroga in this district; therefore, I’m responsible for what happens here—especially deaths.”
Daroga! I screamed at myself. Of all the men in the world for me to play my mind games with, I had to pick the chief of police! How stupid can you get, Erik? What was it you called that dead man for not knowing his opponent? Stupid fool? Well, you definitely picked a good one this time, I rebuked myself.
Trepidation filled me when I thought of all that had happened since I’d crossed Persia’s borders. First, I was attacked, next I had to fight and kill a man, and then finally I had to outwit the chief of police. Perhaps all those events should serve as an omen for me. Perhaps Persia and my desire to create something beautiful were a bad combination.
My stomach turning inside out, I gripped the lasso harder, knowing my freedom could depend on it. As I tried to think my way out of the predicament I’d gotten myself into, my jaws began to ache and my lungs were stuck in one position. I was sitting face to face with the one man, excluding the Shah, who had complete legal control in that region. I’d stolen his watch, and he knew about my latest crime, and yet, I was playing with his mind as if he were any other man. Worse yet, I was giving him a front row seat into my mind and actions. How stupid and arrogant could I be?
Calm down, Erik, I had to repeat to myself several times. He doesn’t know it was you, so calm down. I tried to breathe normally and forced my mind to form coherent words.
“I trust your investigation went well?”
“Yes. Someone saw it happen, so we didn’t have to look too far for our answers.”
With those words, I felt my stomach turn again, and my questions mounted. Since he had a witness, why hadn’t he tried to arrest me? Certainly there couldn’t be more than one man who matched my description. What was he waiting for? Why was he playing games with me? Trying to be conversational, I managed to put words together with a dry mouth.
“How convenient to have a witness to a murder.”
He was either watching my actions more closely right then, or it was my guilty conscience thinking he was. But, in either case, he watched my eyes carefully as he responded, “I didn’t say it was a murder, Erik. Do you always assume the worst?”
“I never assume anything,” I began, buying time to think. “A daroga is a busy man and wouldn’t waste his time in unimportant pursuits. The clear deduction was a murder. That is, unless you’re a mad man, because only an obsessive mad man would track down every death in the territory. Are you a mad man, Oded? Or was it a murder?”
He barely nodded. “According to the witness, it was a murder. And even though it was only a small boy giving the testimony, he was very specific.”
A boy! The third one I’d almost unleashed my coil toward was only a child! I could have seriously hurt the boy, or worse yet, killed him! I felt so sick at that thought, and I swallowed hard. Then, with his next words, I knew for certain he was playing a game with me, and I didn’t like it one bit.
“Although if I hadn’t been a witness to your abilities in Volgograd, I don’t think I would have believed him.”
“My abilities? Are you accusing me of this crime?”
Shifting his weight, he asked, “Not exactly, but I was wondering if you would know anything about it?”
“I’ve made it a policy to mind my own business, and I expect others to do the same—my good Daroga.”
“Could this possibly be your business, Erik? The boy told us there was a man in black with a black mask and that he resembled a large bat. He also said that he killed the man with only a whistle. Was that man you?”
I sat quietly assessing my options, which weren’t many, causing him to ask, “Do you intend to answer me?”
“Do you intend to arrest me if I answer yes? After all, you seem to have all the information you need. You have an eyewitness who had to tell you it was self-defense. Is self-defense a crime in Persia?”
“The taking of a life is always a crime, no matter where you are, Erik. The punishment for the crime is the only question up for debate. In addition, there’s the matter of horse stealing. That is also a crime in Persia,” he said while looking toward the gelding.
“I’ve stolen no horse. This one I’ve had since I was five,” I replied as I patted Molly on the neck. “That Arabian mare and the Shire gelding are also mine, and I have papers to prove it. And the Friesian you’re referring to, I’ve never bridled. He’s a free spirit and comes or goes as he pleases.”
“It seems he pleases to be with you, Erik.”
I felt my eyes narrow and my jaws set before I answered, “As I said, he’s unbridled.”
Again he nodded, and after a moment of silence, he continued, “If I were to ask you to accompany me to Resht to settle this matter, would you do so willingly?”
“Tell me, Oded, if I do, do you intend to arrest me or only question me to death?”
“Which would you prefer, Erik?”
“I would prefer that you try to arrest me right now, rather than continue with these wearisome questions.” Tiring of the word game, I asked him plainly, “Are you intending to try to arrest me for this crime you’re convinced I committed?”
“Try to arrest you? Do you remember when I said I always return with the man I go looking for? Are you telling me I wouldn’t be successful this time?”
“Do you remember when I said I can become anything I wish? It would be impossible to chain a ghost—don’t you think?”
As I waited for his response, my fingers continued their vigil on the coil; however, I had no intention of physically battling with the chief of police. While he was about my height, he had much more weight on him than I had on me, so a physical contest between us would be difficult for me to win.
He took a deep breath and looked more deeply into my eyes than he had previously. He stroked his beard and looked past me toward Luc, who had strolled up to me and laid his head over Molly’s rear. He looked back in my eyes and then at my hand holding the reins, while his fingers found their way to the chain attached to his watch. Then he looked me squarely in the eyes as he spoke his next words.
“I’m not going to force you to do anything you don’t want to do. As far as the man you left in the road, according to the witness, it was entirely self-defense. And as far as that horse is concerned, there hasn’t been a report of a stolen horse. You’re free to go wherever you wish, Erik. But we’re headed for Mazenderan, so, if you’re going in that direction, we would enjoy your company.”
If it weren’t for the serious expression on his face, I would have thought he was still playing his word game with me. But, as I looked for sincerity in his eyes, without doubt, I found it. I was feeling so drained from my fear of bars. Also, having to look into the eyes of someone who knew I’d taken a life was difficult, extremely difficult, and it was taking its toll on me. He’d been sincere with me, so I tried to return the courtesy without sarcasm.
“As I said, I ride beside no man and for very good reasons. In addition, I still don’t know exactly where I’m headed—other than south.”
As he took his watch out and looked at the time, he said, “Have it your way.”
Without bridling my tongue fast enough, I responded coldly, “That’s the only way I ever have it.” I tipped my hat, nudged Molly, and started toward my camp, but Oded called to me before I could get far. I sighed, stopped, and turned to look at him. “What now, Oded?”
“Just one last question.”
“I hope to live to see the day when you have only one more question, my good Daroga.”
Smiling, he asked, “We’re going to have some breakfast. Would you like to join us?”
My first thought was yes. I’d love to have the company of a man I could banter with and share a meal with. But I was too drained by his searching questions. He’d delved more deeply into my soul in a matter of minutes than any man I’d known. Therefore, I had to refuse him.
“My horses and I have come a long way during the night, and I prefer to take care of their needs and rest. Thank you anyway. Perhaps another time.”