“Ooh, no crumbs!” Mina whispered, “It means your fortune will come true!”
I shook my head. I just wanted the cookie. I moved to tuck the paper in my pocket, but Mina stopped me.
“No!” She hissed, grabbing my hand, “What does it say?”
I glanced at it, expecting some platitude like “You light up the room with your enigmatic personality.”
What I got was: “Set timer at 2200. Southeast corner, left column.”
What the heck? Suddenly, my hands got very sweaty. What timer? What was 2200? Why all the directions?
Mina was still looking at me expectantly.
“I need to step out for a sec,” I told her.
“Where are you going?” she wanted to know, “You look like you’ve just seen trouble. What is it?”
“Nothing,” I told her, “I just have to use the men’s room.”
“Okay. I’ll be here where you can find me.”
“Good,” I said, working my way out of the standing crowd. Once I was out from among everyone, I looked at my “fortune” again. What did it mean? Was the hidden message some act of chance, or did I just intercept a message meant for someone else? On a whim, I scanned the crowd, looking for the same things the lawmen do in the movies and TV shows: the quiet one in the crowd that seems to be attending the event, but who takes no interest in what has everyone else in rapt attention. Everyone I saw seemed to be watching the performance and enjoying it. Suddenly I wished I was Jackie Chan, because I knew what I had to do, or at least, if this was a movie, what would happen next: I would go to that southeast corner of--wherever--and down by the left column there would be two shadowy figures, and they would look up and see me, and either assume I was the person they were waiting for, or they would know they’d been exposed, and then they would try to kill me. If I was Jackie Chan, I could take them out. Either that, or this message really was intended for me, and I was now the designated patsy, and they would--Oh crap!--they would take Mina captive to force me to do their dirty work. Then again, if that were true, what was the business about the timer? If they had picked me, they should have known I wouldn’t know anything about a timer before tonight... or had a timer come to me sometime earlier and I didn’t even know it?
Steeped in paranoia, I had made my way out of the ballroom and into the adjacent exhibit hall, the one with all the new Asian stuff in it. It was still lit, not darkened as if no one was supposed to be in there. I glanced around the room. The museum faced east, this room faced north.... the back of the room was flanked by huge marble columns, two on each side. The right corner would be southeast. Could this be where the timer needed to be set? Why here? What, then, was 2200? I wandered over to the corner, inspecting the left-hand column.
Sitting inconspicuously at the base of the column was another fortune cookie! I picked this one up, but I didn’t break it all the way. Before, I had only broken an average fortune cookie, but this time, since I knew this one no doubt contained an important message, I had a choice. I could either open it and seal my involvement with some plot involving a timer (and hence a bomb, it was safe--or not so safe--to assume), or I could just leave it for whomever it was really meant for...but on the other hand, the person with the timer couldn’t know about this cookie, nor when to set the timer because I had taken that first message! In light of this, I really didn’t have a choice after all, because I had started this cookie trail (literally!) and now I was the only one who could finish it. I snapped open the cookie from the column.
The message read: “Codeword Magnolia. 16th and Main, 5th floor, 2 down, 4 in.”
Dang! More numbers! And a code word! This was definitely a plot of some sort! I walked back into the ballroom and looked for Mina. She still stood where I left her; good, if somebody knew he didn’t get the message, evidently somebody either didn’t know that I was the one who intercepted his cookie, or he wasn’t going to threaten my girlfriend. I rejoined her.
“Honey,” she chided quietly, “you’ve almost missed the whole performance! They’re almost done.”
“Can we go now?” I whispered back abruptly.
She gave me a look like “can it wait five minutes?” so I stood next to her with my arms around her, watching the dancers weave and swirl, ending with a grand bow and a long flourish. She applauded with the rest of the audience, and I tried with my arms still around her to guide her out the door amid the throng.
Mina lost her patience when we exited the last door and she pushed my arms away. “What has gotten into you?” she demanded. “Why are you in such a hurry?”
I shook my head, deciding against telling her about what I had seen just yet. “Mina, just trust me when I tell you that you need to go to the police right now.”
“You need to go and you need to tell them that I will be at 16th and Main, and they need to bring me to you. You tell them that and you wait there at the station, no matter what, do you understand?”
Mina’s eyes flashed, “What. Did. You. DO?” she snarled at me, “Josh, what have you gotten yourself into? Why should I go to the police? Do you need help?”
I hailed a taxi. “I don’t know, Mina,” I told her, “I just don’t know; yes, I need help, that’s why you’re getting the police. Go, tell the police and wait for them to bring me. Just go!”
She never took her eyes off of me as she ducked into the cab. I saw her give the destination, and we watched each other as she drove away. I lost eye contact after about two blocks. I turned and hailed another taxi.
“Where to, sir?” the driver asked.
“Sixteenth and Main, please,” I said.
Twenty minutes later, the taxi pulled up in front of a darkened office building, about ten stories high. There were some windows lit, but not all of them. I paid the driver and stepped out of the cab.
I looked around; it was almost 9:30, the sidewalk on this block was nearly empty. I pulled out the paper to review the directions. Somewhere, I was supposed to give the code word “magnolia.” Then I was supposed to go to the fifth floor, and walk 2 down and 4 in, whatever that meant. I figured it would all make more sense inside the building.
The lobby was a wide expanse of tiled floors and dark wood. A receptionist sat at a desk, but she didn’t look up, so I assumed I could just continue on to the elevators on the far side.
“Which conference room will you be using, sir?”
The sudden, sharp sound of her voice made me jump out of my skin. “Ex-excuse me?” I stammered, turning back to the receptionist, who had her horn-rimmed eyes fixed on me now.
She stared at me like the idiot she clearly thought I was. “What room, sir?”
“Umm,” I guessed, “fifth floor?”
“What room?” she repeated, dropping the “sir.”
Inspiration hit, and I decided to try the code word. “Magnolia,” I told her distinctly.
She nodded and turned back to her computer screen. It worked! It was all I could do to keep from cheering out loud. I had used a code word! I’d never done anything like that in my life! And Mina hadn’t been the one to convince me to do it, I’d made the decision to follow this through all by myself!
I all but dove for the elevator and hit the 5 button. When it opened, I stepped out into a large office floor full of rows and rows of cubicles.
“Two down, four in,” I repeated to myself, “Two down, four in...” Two rows down, four cubicles in! That was what it meant! Starting down the hallway nearest the elevator, I counted two rows of cubicles, and as I started down that row, I counted four cubicles into it.
The computer on the desk was dark, but clearly in the dim light, I saw a fortune cookie and a couple scratch cards laying right in front of it. I felt no hesitation as I snapped the cookie and pulled out the next message.
“The timer is at Grand and 22nd.”