Dumping my backpack onto the seat next to me, I breathed in and slowly exhaled, replying, "I'm fine. Thank you for asking. How are you?"
All I was trying to do was simply enjoy breakfast by myself at my hotel buried in the lush environment of Indonesia. I had walked towards my usual spot off the beaten track and found a blue chalked smiley face with "Good Morning" chalked above the face on the concrete pathway. I had been disconcerted by the image and went back to the rest of the hotel guests. There had only been one seat available. An elderly woman waved me over and asked me to join her. Naturally I saw no graceful way of exiting without appearing rude.
I was proud of retaining my basic manners while my pulse raced. There was no reason for me to simply assume that the message had been meant for me but somehow I knew better. My life tended towards the bizarre more than I cared to explore. It was taking all my skills to stay physically there and not phase off the continent and pop back to Uncle Harry's house. I wasn't having a good vacation at all.
"Oh, my, what a question!" Then the woman laughed softly, saying, "At my age the answer varies every hour. I am old, thus not often well."
With that the lady took my polite reply and off-handed question as an honest inquiry and she began to elaborate on just how unwell she currently was. The medical channel on TV could have made an entire series out of her recent illnesses, ailments and operations. She droned on, elaborating on some more graphic aspects of her digestive disorders than I was comfortable with given my oatmeal congealing in the bowl. I regarded the fare with some loathing. My appetite was all but gone. I knew I had to eat but everything looked horrid to me.
She didn't seem aware of her poor choice in conversational gambits as I half-heartedly picked at bits of the cold, dry toast. Looking around for an easy way to escape, I saw one of the many hotel personnel standing near the entrance to the lobby squinting out towards the patio as a beam of sun hit his face. He didn't look old enough to be working, but had on the requisite dark pants and light colored dress shirt worn by all the hotel employees with some sort of emblem on the shirt's pocket. Temporarily blinded by the sun he finally cupped a hand over his eyes shading his face from the bright sun. Once his eyes adjusted he scouted the tables with a myopic squint as he tried to locate someone.
His eyes finally swept to the table where I was seated and he visibly brightened. His feet rapidly covered the distance between us and he stopped at the table and bowed slightly. My tablemate had just finished a lengthy explanation of why she shouldn't eat seafood; a bad gastrointestinal mishap with expired shellfish seemed to be the gist of her story, when she finally noticed the boy.
"What?" Her soft tones were gone and she had the regal manner of one used to servants attending to her every need. She wasn't quite as sweet as she appeared. "Well, young man? You are interrupting our breakfast." Again she spoke with a dismissive tone of entitlement that rubbed me in all the wrong ways.
Her attitude rolled off the boy. He was obviously used to guests being rude to him. I was embarrassed, but couldn't see a way of making an apology without it sounding equally as condescending. The lady was responsible for her own mouth and yet here I was the one feeling discourteous.
"Phone call." He said while looking at me curiously. It didn't seem that he got sent out to find many guests for phone calls but he was smiling, so I gathered he didn't have a clue who I was from the locals.
"Why didn't you say so?" She started to rise. Well, not overly much given she was pretty short. She grabbed the silver handled cane that had been hooked on one of the other empty chairs at the table. She was a pace away from the table when the boy said, "Not you, ma'am. The missy. America, I hear."
His message delivered, he wasted no time fleeing. She spun back around and looked severely put out that I had a call, not her. Maintaining my own composure, I removed the linen napkin from my lap and set it on my plate while making a hasty exit. She wasn't even back in her seat waiting for her next victim and I'd already cleared the hotel's threshold and was making my way past the buffet tables in the lobby to the front desk.
The boy who'd been sent to fetch me nodded at me and then to the older desk clerk behind the counter.
"See, I found her. More like rescued her. She made the mistake of sitting with old lady Babcock." His English was much better than it had been while relaying the message.
He was cuffed lightly by the man who said, "Thank you, Peter, now don't let Miss Babcock hear you call her an old lady. She'll complain." His face was kindly as he handed the boy some coins. We weren't allowed to tip but I'd seen more than one employee slip coins to kids who ran errands. The boy ran out smiling and the clerk looked to me.
"You have a call."
I nodded and asked, "Do I take it here?"
I hadn't received any calls since I got to Indonesia so I wasn't sure exactly how it was handled.
His eyes were wary and my natural paranoia was on heightened alert and the chalk message on the path wasn't helping me calm down. Indonesia was rapidly becoming more foreign than I'd counted on when I had picked it as a destination, safely ensconced in Uncle Harry's den. Hell, even when I was in North Africa I'd never felt so isolated. But I had phased in and out of the archaeological sites there, it had been a little different set of circumstances.
He directed me with a slight gesture of his right hand to a phone across the lobby the opposite side of the room from the buffet tables. The desk clerk nodded saying, "I will connect you."
I nodded back and went to where there were three phones on a long mahogany side table. The phone on the far right made an odd chiming sound and I automatically picked up the receiver.
"Hello?" I said, expecting to hear Uncle Harry's voice on the other end. The call was supposed to be from America so I knew the connection wasn't always great. Static filled my ear.
"So how are you finding Indonesia?"
It wasn't Uncle Harry. It was a whispering hiss of sound. Every hair on my body stood straight up. It wasn't even remotely human. I didn't think it was a vampire, at least not one of the Western varieties.
"Who's this?' I demanded with some force.
The phone crackled and hissed like the sounds that old-fashioned fax machines made while dialing up another machine. I expected to hear the high-pitched reply of another machine, but instead heard a cough. I looked behind me to find the clerk had come around the counter and was holding out a light-colored envelope with a frightened look on his face.
He practically dropped on the floor before it hit my hand as I had half-heartedly put my right hand out automatically.
"No, wrong question." Startled, I heard the odd voice reply in my ear. It was neither female nor male. It wasn't like the caller was trying to hide its voice it was more like it was trying to adjust to English and the act of speaking to me. The feeling of alien attention was flowing over me. I felt like a butterfly pinned to a corkboard while being studied for imperfections. I didn't like the feeling at all.
"What do you want?" I snapped while propping the receiver between my shoulder and against my left ear. With the sealed envelope in both my hands I looked curiously at the quality paper. The paper wasn't like a normal business-sized envelope but had a thick rough feeling of a handcrafted piece of stationary.
I wondered if it was silk or cotton, not that I knew the difference, just that I could tell it was expensive. Calligraphy on the outside simply with my room number and the name of the hotel, the black ink looked deeper and darker than it should be against the cream colored paper.
I'd forgotten the phone call as I turned the letter over unopened.
"I am what I am." Great, just what I wanted, a fortune cookie reply. My skin was still crawling with goose bumps.
"All righty, I'll be hanging up now," I said while still studying the envelope. My fingers found the wax seal on the back, which was mildly interesting. I remembered going through a period of about six months or so when I sent every letter sealed with wax and embossed with a crest from one of Uncle Harry's signet rings. It was an old ring that had been used, as he said, during a previous age and he didn't need that identity any longer. I'd used it on every piece of mail I sent regardless of the looks of absolute horror on the face of the postman every time he picked up the letters.
"Don't." The contraction came as a surprise because usually older creatures spoke quite formally and whatever was on the other end of the phone was definitely old -- at least that was the feeling rolling over my skin -- which was still indicating total revulsion.
Happy to be contrary, I hung up the phone without another word. I slipped the envelope into my bag, deciding to open it when I was alone. I had no time for games and wanted to hear from Uncle Harry, not spooky creatures. I decided to go back to my room and pack. Also noticing how closely the same desk clerk was obviously trying not to stare at me, I figured I didn't need to be part of the rumor mill anymore than I already was.
I asked politely for my room key. The hotel kept with the formality of Old World hotels where they kept control and knowledge of when their guests came and went by storing the keys to the rooms behind the counter in cubbyholes. The man made an elaborate show of studying the numbers as if trying to recall exactly which room I was in and where the key was hidden. He gave a start of surprise and pulled out a slip of paper along with the key. I guess he didn't get two messages very often left for guests in the same day. Add in the phone call, I was definitely going to be on the staff's list of folks to discuss. Much like the disliked old lady Babcock. Suddenly I wondered how the cream colored sealed envelope had ended up in his care, maybe hand delivered by someone he knew. His feigning surprise hadn't fooled me for a second. The look in his eyes didn't mask his culpability in whatever was transpiring.
The paper was folded in half and he handed it over, declaring the obvious, "You have a message."
Not wanting to prolong the encounter any more, I ripped the paper and key from his fingers a tad quicker than most humans moved. His eyes blinked rapidly as his mind tried to process my speed. Taking a small breath I pushed down my anxiety and interest in the newest bit of information being offered.
Smiling insincerely I said, "Thanks!" And made for my room. The phone rang next to him as I left the counter and he automatically picked it up. His eyes widened and from that I assumed the creature had called back. He tried to beacon me to take the unwanted call but I fled pretending not to have heard him.
Two minutes later I was locked in my room ignoring the phone now ringing next to my bed on the nightstand. I'd yet to open the cream-colored envelope; instead I was biting back a squeal of excitement after reading the folded message. The note was a piece of welcome news.
It simply said, "Good to go, Emma. You need to get home now. Tonight at nine via Guaruda Air to Bali. From Bali get on Singapore Air to Hong Kong. British Airways from there. Tickets are under your name. Love, Uncle Harry."