Fred tiptoed into his room and slid into his desk chair, casting a worried glance over his shoulder as he opened his laptop. Typing as quietly as he could, he logged onto Artium Obscurorum and ... [+]
"What is this?" Greg demanded, starting to rise from his chair. "You can't—"
He'd barely moved an inch when two hands seized his shoulders and shoved him back down.
"Drink," repeated the voice, now behind his back.
"I'm calling the cops," Greg seethed. "I don't know who you think you are, but—"
He trailed off—his phone was gone. How had they taken his phone?
"No police," the voice tutted from across the table.
"What do you want from me?" Greg growled. A moment passed, then a figure stepped into the pool of light streaming from the lamp overhead. To Greg's bewilderment, the person across the table—the person who had yanked him through his front door and shoved him into a kitchen chair—was a tiny, old woman.
The woman smirked.
"I have operated as an interrogator for powers both foreign and domestic," she said, her words tinged with a Slavic accent, "and what I want—"
She pushed the mug toward Greg.
"—is for you to drink."
Greg eyed the cup warily.
"I'm not thirsty."
"Drink," the woman repeated, "or else what follows will be far more unpleasant."
The steel in her voice sent a shiver down Greg's spine.
"Fine," he grunted, lifting the mug to his nose; the vapor rising from the liquid's dark surface smelled herby and sharp. He glared at the woman, then tipped back the mug and swallowed a mouthful of the brew. He tried to not let it touch his tongue, but failed: instantly, his mouth was filled with a bitterness unlike anything he'd ever tasted.
"Gha—" Greg sputtered, shoving the mug away from him. "What is—"
"Chifir," said the woman as she leaned back from the table, satisfied. "To awaken the tongue that it might speak more freely."
"Not sure I have a tongue anymore," Greg muttered. The woman chuckled.
"Tochno. So it is." Greg's temper flared at her laugh.
"Alright," he coughed. "I had your disgusting drink. What do you want?"
The woman produced a photograph and placed it on the table.
"What do you know of the woman in this photo?" she asked, sliding the picture over for Greg's inspection. Greg peered at the image—a woman in dark clothes and sunglasses. He wanted to say he didn't know her, but there was something about her face—
"Natalia Sawyer, da," the woman confirmed. "As she appeared one year ago. You are Ms. Sawyer's current paramour, yes?"
"...weird way of putting it, but yeah," said Greg, "we're together."
"What do you know of her previous romantic pursuits?"
"As little as I can get away with."
The woman nodded.
"As I suspected. Then you will not have heard what happened to them?"
"What do you mean?"
"Ms. Sawyer has pursued many rising stars over the years," said the woman. "Doctors, lawyers, politicians—all of them young people of promising talent."
"Not one of them emerged from their entanglement with her unscathed."
"What is that supposed to mean?"
"Each of these individuals held promise in their career; after parting ways with Ms. Sawyer, each in turn found their life's work obliterated by allegations of wrongdoing."
"Plagiarism. Corruption. Fraud," the woman intoned. "Whatever deceit you choose to name."
"Were they true?"
"Difficult to say. Some were proven true. Others are...harder to verify."
"You think Nat was responsible for all of this?"
"All I am saying is that, thus far, anyone who has fallen into Ms. Sawyer's orbit has found all of their previous indiscretions laid bare before the public eye."
"And that's what's going to happen to me?" Greg huffed. The woman's eyes narrowed.
"Tell me, Mr. Weber," she said, "you work as a deliveryman, da?"
"And who engages your services?"
"Anyone who calls dispatch."
"Would it be unreasonable to say that most of your clients do business within the city's financial district?"
"I wonder what documents have been entrusted to your care," the woman mused. "Highly confidential, no doubt—perhaps such a courier could be persuaded to share their cargo with a third party—"
"Enough with this," Greg fumed. "Just tell me what you want."
The woman smiled as she leaned in closer.
"Why has Natalia Sawyer taken an interest in you?"
The question caught Greg off guard.
"Seems like you'd be better off asking her."
"I am asking you," said the woman. "Ms. Sawyer's former companions have all been powerful in one way or another—what do you have to offer?"
Greg felt a knot form in his stomach.
"Back off," he growled.
"I repeat: why—"
"I don't know!" Greg erupted. A tense silence filled the air; Greg waited for the woman to speak, but she said nothing. He felt the fight seep out of him as the seconds ticked by.
"I don't know," he said, softly this time. "It makes sense that she's dated all those doctors and lawyers— she's probably smarter than all of them. And I'm—"
"I'm just the stupid guy on a bike that fell in love with her."
He marveled for a moment at how easily the words had slipped out. His mind flashed back to the bitter liquid; had it actually worked?
"So yeah, I don't know why she chose me," he said, looking the woman in the eye. "She's out of my league. But I don't believe for a second she'd do anything to hurt me."
"And I'd never take a bribe like that, for what it's worth," he added. The woman smirked; she was about to respond when the silence was broken by the sound of a key in the lock.
Nat! Greg thought, but before he could react the lights flashed on in the kitchen, blinding him. Shielding his eyes from the glare, he looked up to see Nat standing in the threshold, glaring furiously in his direction.
"Natalia, medvezhonok, how good it is to see you!"
Greg turned in alarm to look at the woman—the hard edge in her voice had vanished. There was a colorful knit shawl around her shoulders—had that been there the whole time?—and she was smiling warmly at Nat as she sipped from Greg's mug.
"I know what this is, Baba!" said Nat sternly.
"But of course!" the woman replied. "I was simply talking with young Gregory—"
"You were interrogating him!" Nat interrupted. The woman seemed amused.
"Da. As you say. Would you like to know what I found?"
Nat froze for a moment—then shook her head.
"No. Greg's different from the others, Baba. Nothing you say could change my mind."
The woman's smile widened.
"Moye solntse. You honor each other with your loyalty."
She gave Greg one last look of appraisal, then turned back to Nat.
"You will be pleased to know I have no reservations about Mr. Weber," she said matter-of-factly. "His heart is true."
Nat's shoulders slumped in relief; the sight gave Greg the courage to speak up.
"Nat...who is this?"
"Sorry, Greg; this is my grandma, Nika," said Nat, crossing into the kitchen to give the woman a hug. "She likes to drop in on us sometimes, unannounced."
"I watch over my grandchildren," Nika replied. "Have something to drink, Natalia."
Nika handed her the mug—Nat had taken a sip before Greg could warn her.
"The chifir's not as strong as usual," said Nat, wiping her mouth with her sleeve. She frowned.
"Wait—did you make Greg drink this?!"
"He took it better than most," said Nika, retrieving the mug from Nat and downing the rest. "We will talk more at dinner, but I must first attend to other business."
Nat raised an eyebrow.
"Da," said Nika. "Your cousin Anna complains of unwanted texts from a man she once met for coffee—his correspondence ends today."