Chapter Sixteen: Ashe
Ten of Hearts
He lifted it gently to his face, inhaling the smell of it. Siren No. 5. It hit him hard.
He stumbled backward and fell to the ground, still holding the scarf.
Ashe was sitting in his dorm room on campus, studying for a test the next day. Jaxx was in class—something medical. Jaxx was so much more focused on what he wanted, a career in medicine.
Ashe was less certain. He was a phoenix, after all. He was supposed to ride the winds, not settle down in one place, or so he told himself.
There was a knock at the door. “Can I come in?”
He knew that voice. “Mita!” he said, throwing it open, surprised to see his mother there at school. “I didn’t know you were in town.”
She hugged him, smelling of the sea—her signature perfume. She was wearing her favorite blue silk scarf. “I had an unexpected layover on my way to DC. Dragon with a bad cough, I think. So I came to see my only son while I was in town. Do you have time for lunch?”
He looked back at his open book. “I wish I could. I have a test tomorrow. I’m sorry—”
She shook her head with a wide smile.“Not a problem. I know you’re busy. I remember what college was like.”
He felt guilty. “You know, it can wait—”
“Nonsense. Go back to your studies.” She glanced at her phone. “Looks like my new flight’s almost ready anyhow.” She pulled him close again. “I love you so much, my little sparrow. I am so proud of you.”
“Thanks, mita,” he said, hoping none of his friends saw. “I love you too.”
She kissed him on the cheek. “I’ll call you from DC.”
He waved at her, still feeling like a heel for turning down her invitation. Then he went back to his studies.
It was the last time he ever saw her.
He sat there on the floor of the bank vault, looking at the blue scarf. She’d left this for him.
Callista, the bank teller poked her head into the vault. “Everything okay here, Mr. Heyoka?” she asked, seeing him on the floor.
He got up, tucking the scarf and its contents in his pocket. “Yeah,” he said, wiping the tears from his eyes. “Sorry, just tripped. Clumsy me.” He flashed her a smile.
“Anything I can do?”
“Nope, all done. Thank you for your help.” He walked out of the vault, trying to keep it together until he got out of the bank.
He couldn’t fool Jaxx, though. Jaxx and the Professor were waiting for him just outside the bank, and he rushed to put his arms around Ashe as soon as he emerged from the bank lobby.
“Was it bad?” he whispered.
Ashe shook his head. “Just… memories.” Jaxx’s arms felt so good around him. “I’m so glad you’re here.”
* * * * *
Ashe stared at the scarf, so small in the middle of the large mahogany table in professor Dressler’s dining room. It had been lovingly wrapped around something, but he wasn’t sure he was ready to find out what.
Had she been disappointed that he hadn’t come to lunch with her, on that fateful day? Had she taken that bitterness to the grave?
“Professor Dressler thought we might need this,” Jaxx said, coming out of the kitchen with a tray, a bottle of scotch, and two glasses. “He wanted to give us a little privacy.”
Ashe glanced at the bottle It was the same one the Professor had served them earlier.
Jaxx poured them each a glass, neat. He handed one to Ashe and then took the other, raising it in the air. “To your mother. She was an amazing woman.”
Ashe clinked the glass against Jaxx’s and took a sip. It was strong. He downed the whole thing and set the glass on the table next to the scarf. “She was wearing that the last time I saw her,” he said.
Jaxx nodded but said nothing, settling into the chair next to him. His glass was empty too.
It was time.
Ashe reached for the scarf, laying it gently in front of him and unwrapping it carefully. As it came open, something clattered onto the table - a little USB flash drive. Ashe picked it up and looked at it. It was blue, like the scarf, but it triggered no memories for him. He set it aside for the moment.
The other thing inside was a little leather diary.
It was about the size of his hand, made of tanned dragon hide. It had a beautiful sheen—if he held it up to the light, he could see an iridescent sparkle just under the surface.
He lay it on the table and flipped it open to read the first page, written in his mother’s handwriting.
This morning, I was in Tucson, and I saw Ashe. I am so proud of him. I still remember when he was born, his beautiful eyes, the way he looked at me, a code that only we two understood. Twenty years later, he’s a man who is making his own way in the world…
“She says she was proud of me. She wasn’t angry, even though I didn’t have time for her that morning.”
Jaxx put a hand on his. “Of course she was.”
Ashe took a deep breath. Those were the words he had waited to hear, ever since he’d gotten the news that she had died in a car accident shortly after returning tor DC.
Why out him through all of this, just to tell him she was proud?
Why a spelled key? A trip across country? A secret safe deposit box?
His gaze fell on the flash drive. “Jaxx, do you have your tablet?”
Jaxx nodded. “Let me grab it.” He was back in a minute, and handed it over to Ashe.
Ashe pulled the cover off the flash drive and plugged it into the tablet’s USB port.
A password window appeared on the screen.
“Dammit.” Why had she encrypted the files? He could guess at the user name and password, but there must be a half billion possibilities. Unless…
He opened the diary again, examining it carefully.
He turned page after page, covered with descriptions of her daily life or inner emotional thoughts. It wasn’t like her to go on this way. She’d been beautiful and warm. But always concise.
Then he saw it. In the bottom right corner of a page about halfway through, there was a little “10” with a heart around it.
When he was little, he’d gotten trouble in school for passing a note to a boy he liked. When he’d told his mother, she’d laughed, and had shown him how to create a code that the teacher wouldn’t be able to crack, hiding his message in plain sight.
“What is it?” Jaxx said as Ashe flipped back to the front.
“I need a pen, or hi-lighter.”
“Just a sec.” Jaxx popped into the professor’s study, and returned triumphantly with a yellow hi-lighter. “Here you go.”
The key was the number “10”. He started at the beginning, and counted ten words in. He hi-lighted that word, then counted nine more, hi-lighting the ninth, then the eight, then the seventh, until he got to another number. He sat back, looking at his handiwork. “Damn.”
This morning, I was in Tucson, and I saw Ashe. I am so proud of him. I still remember when he was born, his beautiful eyes, the way he looked at me, a code that only we two understood. Twenty years later, he’s a man who is making his own way in the world.
Translated, it read:
Ashe, remember the code.
The next word was a key for how many to count until the next one, and then it would start going down one word at a time again.
“She left you a secret message,” Jaxx said, grinning.
“Yes, she did. Grab a piece of paper, and take this down for me.” He started counting again, hi-lighting and reading the words to Jaxx.
In the end, they assembled the rest of the message.
My beautiful Ashe,
If you are reading this, I am so sorry, because it means I am gone. I have been looking into something that may be far more dangerous than I’d guessed. There are powerful people who want to keep this a secret, and if they discover me, I believe they will kill me.
The flash drive with this diary has all the files. The username is your father’s nickname, and the password is the thing you found in the garden that beautiful afternoon when you were five.
Take it to Maeva Zoss in Zurich. David can help you get there.
Burn everything but the flash drive after you have read this message.
Know that I loved you with all my heart.
That nickname squeezed Ashe’s heart. “I want to kill whoever did it to her,” he whispered.
Jaxx hugged him from behind, saying nothing.
Ashe stared at it for a long time. “They told me it was a car crash,” he said at last.
“It’s a good way to make it look like an accident,” Jaxx said.
“Let’s see what she died for.” He typed “Kino” as the username, and “dandelion” as the password.
The screen cleared, and a folder called “D-v2” appeared on the screen. He touched it, and it opened, displaying a group of files.
He scanned them, looking for a theme. They were labeled genetics, subtypes, related studies, and disruption.
He clicked on the last folder and opened the “Summary” file.
“‘Evaluation of transgenic magical intervention in specific species will measure responses to external stressors including decreased gravity and oxygenation levels as well as trials to collect data on improvements in speed and endurance.’ What the hell?”
Jaxx was scanning down further. “‘Preliminary breeding trials reveal jennies to be more inclined to react favorably...’ They’re talking about dragons.”
Ashe tried to decipher what his mother had discovered. Something about dragons. By the government? By corporations? It wasn’t clear.
He opened one of the other files.
It looked like garbage.
“Go get Professor Dressler.”
* * * * *
The Professor called in a favor. They burned the diary, and about four hours later, the two of them were on a private dragon owned by the Esoteric Magic Federation, headed for a heretofore unknown conference on Magic and Mayhem being held in Zurich, Switzerland.