Jen felt a little strange being back home. Chicago was still Chicago, the architecture, the roads, even most of the people were largely unchanged, but when she looked up at her house the sheer familiarity of it felt alien somehow.
It was a strange and unsettling sensation. How could something she knew so well, which looked almost exactly the same as when she left it, feel so vastly different? Everywhere she looked she saw a thousand little details that leapt out and summoned memories that were decades old. She knew this place. It was a part of her. Heck, half her dreams were still located in that house. Despite the memories and the familiarity though, it still felt new.
Maybe because she’d never noticed all the details in that she could recognize. When it was her home it was a part of her everyday world. Seeing it again though made each little bit of it jump out it her like they’d never done before.
“Coming back is always strange isn’t it?” Anna asked, as she paid for their cab fare.
“This is the first time I’ve been away for so long,” Jen said. “It seems so different, but I know it’s not. It’s me.”
“That’s always comes with travel,” Anna said. “Coming home, we see through new eyes as our perspective changes. Things seem smaller as we see more and more of the world.”
“Yeah, I kind of got more than I bargained for there,” Jen said. “It’s hard to believe it was just three years ago that I was kidnapped by pirates. And I wasn’t even supposed to be on that boat!”
“I imagine the pirates wished you’d been absent even more than you did, given how things ultimately turned out for them,” Anna said.
“Would you believe one of them still writes to me?” Jen said. “He doesn’t have my address, but he writes to the police station in Changwon and one of the officers there forwards the letters on when she gets the chance.”
“I guess you could say that you made an impact on them,” Anna said.
Jen went to speak and then caught the pun Grandma Russia had made. It was clever given that Jen’s primary interaction with the pirate crew who’d boarded her boat had been Jen acting as an ambush predator and taking them out one by one as they’d foolishly trickled down to the lower deck to see what had happened to their compatriots.
It had been a terrifying experience, but also a turning point in Jen’s life. She could have died. Easily. By all rights she should have.
It had been a last desperate effort that had sent her and three of the pirates over the side of the ship. She didn’t have a plan for how to fight them in the water, or any idea at all what to do about the men who were still armed on the boat. All she’d been able to think was that if she died in the ocean, they might never find her and so she’d get to live on as a mystery, rather than becoming a poor, armless, dead girl.
Death hadn’t been an unlikely outcome of that fight either. Under normal circumstances she should have drowned, or been shot. Thanks to the miracles that were Anna and Tam though, she’d been given a second chance.
They’d done more than rescue her too. In the aftermath of the failed kidnapping, Jen found the last of the fears that had always held her back falling away.
Since she was a little girl, she’d yearned to travel the world, and her parents, reasonably she had to admit, had always been worried about how dangerous it would be. Talking them into allowing her to make a solo trip to New Zealand had been a monumental effort, and they hadn’t known about the cruise to South Korea at all. To say they were surprised beyond reason when they learned about the pirate attack was only wrong in terms of how much more shocked they were when Jen told them that she was going to extend her trip and travel to every one of the continents.
“How long has it been since you’ve been back home?” Anna asked.
“It’s only been two years,” Jen said. “It feels like twenty though. Or two hundred.”
“Did you let your parents know you were coming to visit, or is this a surprise?” Anna asked, seeing Jen hesitating on the sidewalk.
“It’s a surprise,” Jen said. “I wasn’t able to keep in touch all that well while I was traveling, so I figured they wouldn’t be expecting me and, really, this kind of surprise is a once in a lifetime opportunity. How could I pass it up?”
“An understandable sentiment,” Anna said. “Though it does leave open the question of whether or not your parents will be home, doesn’t it”
“Oh it’ll be a couple of hours before my Mom and Dad are back,” Jen said. “Mom’s got classes and office hours until at least 5:00 pm and Dad’s community outreach programs usually go till 7:00 pm.”
“And it’s 3:00 pm now,” Anna said. “Did you plan to wait outside for them?”
“No, I’ve got a key still.” Jen said. “I thought we could drop our stuff off and head over to the Field Museum to check out the dinosaurs Tam wanted us to help with the security on.”
“Will we be able to make it here and back in time?” Anna asked.
“With Chicago traffic?” Jen said. “It’ll take at least two hours to get there. And probably the same to get back. Unless of course you drive!”
Anna started to raise her forefinger as a precursor to a question but the gleam in Jen’s eye told her all she needed to know.
“You called for a rental car?” It was a question though Anna was certain enough of the answer that it only barely qualified as one.
“It should be here in about five minutes,” Jen said. “Do you need to use the bathroom?”
She unlocked the front door and dropped her bags on the couch that was took up the nearest wall of the small living room. Anna joined her inside, placing her bags on the floor in front of the couch. The decor was a hodgepodge of typical American furniture, mostly second hand, with wall hangings from places as distant as Senegal and as nearby as the corner craft store.
“I’ll just be a minute,” Jen said, heading towards the kitchen. Anna considered offering her a hand in writing the note she was no doubt leaving to cover the case where they didn’t return in time, but she checked herself.
Jen clearly didn’t need any help with that, and respecting her capabilities was something Anna wanted to make sure she did properly. The prosthesis Jen wore were more limited than organic arms would have been, but that didn’t mean Jen herself was limited. She had alternate methods of accomplishing things, and there would certainly be some tasks where she would appreciate assistance, but she was just as capable of asking for help as anyone with hands was.
In time, Anna knew she would learn the ins and outs of how to work best with Jen. Until then, she was resolved to handle moments of doubt through listening and observation, and to give Jen the same consideration and respect Anna gave to the rest of her associates.
It was a simple approach to dealing with someone new, but it had never failed her in the past.
On the ride over to the Field’s Museum, Jen was able to carry on an animated conversation, something few of Anna’s other passengers seemed capable of when she was in a rush.
“So, Tam says the dinosaur bones might be stolen tomorrow night?” Jen said.
“Yes,” Anna said, banking hard to the right as she slid through an intersection. The police car that had peeled out to tail her hadn’t made the corner onto the road she was leaving, so there was no chance they’d be able to follow. “Apparently there will be a confluence happening tomorrow night which is bringing a sort of black market for mystical artifacts to Chicago.”
“Why wait till tomorrow night to steal them though?” Jen asked. She had her feet up against the dashboard and was riding the changes in velocity as though the car was a strangely shaped surfboard beneath her.
“Only some of the bones will resonate with the confluence,” Anna said. “For tomorrow’s Mystic Market those will be the only ones with any trade value. Also, people like Tam and Sarah tend to track down those who steal mystically empowered artifacts before they’re put to misuse, so the longer the thieves have to hold onto stolen property, the more danger they run of being caught.”
“Can’t they just zip over to another world or something though to hide out?” Jen asked.
“Our recent experiences aside, crossing between worlds is fairly rare,” Anna said. “Also, if the thief can cross, then so can the people chasing them.”
“Does the museum staff know that they’ve got magic dino bones to protect?” Jen asked.
“It’s possible but I don’t believe so,” Anna said. “Tam and Sarah reviewed the staff records and didn’t recognize the names of anyone as a practitioner they were familiar with. That’s not a guarantee of course. There are plenty of wizards and witches and so on that operate on their own, or in societies which none of us have encountered to date.”
“Even so, I was looking at Tam’s library; it seems like I’ve got a lot to catch up on there.”
“You’ll find that stays true for quite a while,” Anna said. “Each case in fact seems to take us in new directions with plenty to learn.”
“That sounds like half the fun of what we do,” Jen said.
“Fun is a part of it,” Anna said. “Also terror, though this case shouldn’t have so much of that.”
“Let’s hope not,” Jen said. “Cause it looks like we’re here.”
It wasn’t the first time Jen had been to the Field’s Museum. As a kid she’d pestered her parents to take her back to it any time a new exhibition showed up. On none of those trips however had she gotten to go backstage and visit the museum’s security office.
“You must be Ms. Ilyina?” an older man in a crisp black suit said. He was seated in front of a bank of monitors that displayed the status of the museum’s various security systems. “And Ms. Kelly?”
Anna nodded and said “Indeed we are Mr. Washington. It was a pleasure to speak with you earlier.”
“The pleasure’s all mine,” Washington said. “Anyone who can call in a budget increase, even a temporary one, for my team is someone I’m more than happy to meet with.”
“The museum has a fine staff,” Anna said. “There were a few holdouts, but with a little negotiation, that was easily sorted out.”
“I can’t imagine ‘easily’ applies to anything about getting extra money from the board,” Washington said. “Given that you did though, how can I help you in return?”
“I’d like to talk over the museum’s security, particularly around the dinosaur fossil exhibits,” Anna said. “There may be an attempt to remove one or more of the major bones during working hours tomorrow.”
“I’d like to say that’s impossible, but I’ve been in this business too long to believe that,” Washington said.
“Impossible is the goal we strive towards, not a destination we can ever reach,” Anna said. “In this case though I believe our striving will be fairly simple.”
“If the security window you’re concerned with is tomorrow, I can schedule people for extra shifts, but we’re not even close to overstaffed, so I can’t promise that will mean much of a boost in terms of coverage,” Washington said.
“What if we had a some people you could deputize for the day,” Jen said.
“They’d need to be vetted,” Washington said. “Anyone with access to the security systems needs to go through a background check and we won’t have time to run those before tomorrow.”
“We may not need that for our deputies,” Jen said.
“What are you planning?” Washington asked.
“My father is a youth counselor,” Jen said. “He works with at-risk kids and has an outreach program where he and his fellow counselors manage about fifty kids. Tomorrow’s not a school day, and kids will blend in with the crowds really well. Give them an earbud to stay in communication with your full time guards, and a day’s pay and you’ll have fifty extra sets of eyes keeping track of anyone who tries anything shady.”
“That…that could definitely help,” Washington said.
The next day when the museum opened, the crowd had a higher than normal percentage of teenagers in the mix. Teenagers who spent the entire day at the museum, absorbing art, and culture, and having fun with science and a chance to hang out with each other.
That they were also always where the thieves needed people to not be, and always looking right where the thieves needed people to facing away from for at least thirty seconds, was something which only Anna and Jen noticed and got to enjoy.
The day ended with a peaceful close and no dinosaur bones missing from the museum’s collection and that was just fine with everyone except a pair of grumpy thieves who woke the next day to discover several of the other items they’d stolen previously for other Mystic Markets had vanished while they were at the museum.
The smarter of the two thieves understood what had happened, seeing that someone who’d been in a position to take their stuff could as easily have taken something more precious, like their lives.
Not wanting to waste the second chance they’d been given, the two thieves had given up their life of crime and had instead become security specialists, in the process making significantly more money at significantly less risk than they ever had before.