It’s enough to almost make me lose track of what century I’m in, so it takes a moment for me to remember to pull out the compass I’ve been carrying around all day. I turn the way the Scarred Man ran the night before. South, southwest. And then I start to follow.
At first it’s easy — the tunnels either don’t branch or else dusty cobwebs or ancient debris block the way, and there is no doubt whether or not I went that way the night before.
I go south, southwest for twenty minutes. Due east for another ten. But when the tunnel dead-ends at a pile of old, dusty wooden crates, I start to worry. I know I’ve made a wrong turn somewhere along the way.
Backtracking, I pay careful attention. The floor slopes and rises. At one point I realize the tunnels don’t just go left and right. They also go up and down. I may be right beneath the streets, or I could be a hundred feet deeper beneath the city — I have been walking for so long that it’s impossible to know.
I’m just about to give up when I hear the drip, drip, drip of water falling into a larger pool. Suddenly, the tunnel is warmer. I pull off my favorite cardigan. Even in a T-shirt and shorts I’m starting to sweat.
And then the strangest thing happens: The tunnel ends.
Instead of an entrance in the ceiling, I reach a door and stop. The sound of the dripping water is clearer now. I’m even hotter.
According to my compass I’m pretty sure I’m on the far-north end of Embassy Row.
Gently, I push. But before the door even opens, I know exactly where I am.
The word is a whisper I barely dare to say aloud. But there’s no one around to hear me, and I make myself step slowly, cautiously inside.
The tile around the ornate swimming pool is slick with a dampness that seems to have taken up permanent residence in the embassy’s basement. My hair clings to the back of my neck as I walk toward the ornate pool and think about the story that my grandfather told me — about the hot springs that run underneath the palace and throughout the rest of the city. When I see steam rising from the water, I realize that the Iranians must have had their very own. Hot springs and beach access? No telling what Noah might say to the Israeli ambassador to try to convince him to arrange some kind of real estate swap now.
But Noah will never know — can never know — where I am. And why. It’s a mission for which I don’t even really trust myself.
Condensation gathers on the tile ceiling and then drops into the pool below in a steady, even beat. It’s almost soothing. If the chaise lounges around the pool weren’t covered with mildew, I might lie down and take a nap.
But then I hear a noise. The door starts to move. And I know that, once again, I am in the Iranian embassy.
And I am not alone.
Maybe the Scarred Man is coming. Or maybe it’s the man he’s been meeting. Somehow, neither option frightens me. I feel like maybe my life has been leading to this for years, and I’m grateful I no longer have to wait. To worry. To wonder. I’m ready to have it over.
The door is heavy and the hinges are rusty from the humidity and years of little use.
It catches. Stalls. And I know I should use the time to run upstairs and out through the loose piece of fence on the beach. Maybe I should hide somewhere inside the sprawling fortress.
In other words, I should save myself. It’s the smart thing to do. But the downside of spending most of your life having people tell you you’re acting stupid means that, eventually, you stop trying to do what is smart.
I inch toward the door.
I grab the arm that is reaching toward me.
I pull, daring whoever is on the other side to try to hurt me first.
The word that comes is loud and fast and (I’m pretty sure) dirty. It’s also in Portuguese.
Noah throws his hand to his chest then doubles over, breathing hard. “You scared me!”
“I scared you?” I say, slapping at his arm. “What are you doing down here?”
“Following you,” Rosie adds from behind him, entirely too cheerful. “Wow, I’ve never been down this way before.” She pushes Noah through the doorway, then steps into the basement herself. Her eyes go up to the ornate ceiling before turning to the lavish pool.
“Cool,” she says.
“Yeah. But why are you …” I trail off as my gaze settles onto Megan, who stands just on the other side of the door. Of course she’s here. I’m starting to learn that Megan is always around to see too much, hear too much. Know too much. And that makes something inside of me snap.
“Go!” I shout, pointing back to the tunnels. “Rosie, Noah, go home. Now. You, too, Megan.”
“We don’t even know where we are,” Noah says.
“No.” I shake my head. “I know where we are. And you need to go.”
“How do you know?” Megan asks.
“Because I’ve been here before.”
“You’ve been here before?” Noah asks. “So that means …” He looks like he’s doing math in his head. “That means this is —”
“Iran,” I say.
“Iran!” Noah finishes at the same time. He turns and reaches for Rosie’s hand. “Come on. We’ve got to get out of here.”
But Rosie pulls away. “Cool,” she says again, walking toward the water that is part pool, part hot springs.
Amazingly, Megan doesn’t run away either. Instead, she leans down and runs her hand through the water that is surprisingly clear. “Awesome.”
“Awesome? Are you three trying to kill me?” Noah shouts.
“Ooh, we should get in,” Megan says. “Next time I’ll bring my bikini.”
Noah stumbles back like he’s been shot. “You are trying to kill me.”
“Noah’s right,” I say. “The three of you should go. Get out of here before you —”
“Before we what?” Noah says. “What’s going to happen to the three of us that won’t happen to you?”
“This isn’t your fight, Noah,” I snap.
“Yeah, well, it became my fight the moment I …” He trails off and, suddenly, I’d give anything to know what he was going to say.
“The moment you what?”
“The moment you met me?” I guess. “The moment you heard about the man with the scar?” That still isn’t it — I can tell. So I go back further. “Or was it the moment Ms. Chancellor asked you to keep me out of trouble? She didn’t just ask you to show me around, did she?”