Screwing Up Alexandria Excerpt

Chapter One

     I stepped out the door of Yale’s Beinecke Library and scanned the plaza beyond the building’s lights. It looked empty. But was it?
     The buildings around the plaza cast deep, dark shadows. What if someone was hiding in them, waiting for me? The guy had let me go the last time. But the next time…I might not be so lucky.
     Standing in the light only made me an easier target. I stepped into the darkness, waiting for my eyes to adjust, and listened for a cough, a sneeze or the sound of breathing. But the only noise was wind whistling between the buildings.
     I scanned the plaza one more time. I couldn’t afford to be reckless anymore. The dagger with the anonymous threat had taught me that. I squeezed my car keys in my hand, their notched edges digging into my palm. Get to the car, hop inside, drive away. Speed was—
    “Mark, is that you?”
     I spun around, tensed.
     It was only Professor Prudence, squinting into the darkness. Students referred to her as “Prickly Pru” or even…well, you can guess what they call you when your name has a double P.
     Professor Pru didn’t deserve those names, not really. Once you got past her impatience, she was nice. Granddad had once told me, “That woman cannot abide fools. Give her the best you’ve got.” So I did. After one semester, she’d invited me to take a directed study class with her, even though I was a freshman.
     She shook my shoulder. “Mark?”
     I blinked.
     “Are you okay?”
     Say something, I told myself. Make something up. “I, uh, thought I saw a shooting star.”
     “Really?” She looked at the sky. “I’m surprised you could see one—what with all the clouds tonight.”
     I was a moron. Even the moon didn’t show through the cloud cover. “Right. Must’ve been something else.”
     “Do you need a ride home?” she asked.
     I shook my head. “I’ve got a car.”
     “Oh. Are you waiting for someone?”
     I couldn’t tell her the truth, that someone might be lurking in the dark to kill me. So I said, “I was wondering if you’d like me to walk you to your car.”
     She laughed. The question was funny. Sort of. Pru wasn’t your stereotypical ancient languages professor. She was 5’ 10” with broad shoulders and forearms that a boxer would be proud of. She was more queen of the Amazons than bookworm, and anyone who tried to attack her would find himself with broken limbs.
     “I’m fine, thanks,” she said and started to walk away. “Besides I’m parked in the university lot, and I’ve never heard of any crimes there.”
     Only because no one reported anything, I thought as she disappeared into the dark. I certainly hadn’t made a report when I’d been mugged two weeks ago. Of course, mine wasn’t a normal mugging. This mugger hadn’t wanted my watch, not surprising since it was cheap. And he didn’t want my poison ring, my car keys, or my wallet. Instead, he’d held a knife to my throat and demanded “the tablet.”
     For half a second, I’d considered telling the would-be thief that I had no idea what he was talking about. But if he knew about the tablet, pretending was pointless. So I’d told him that I didn’t have it with me. To prove my point, I dumped everything out of my backpack onto the asphalt.
     Thankfully, he’d only done a quick search of my car. If he had looked carefully, he’d have found the tablet wrapped in a blanket and hidden underneath the spare tire.
     When I first got the tablet, I’d kept it and all the others I’d brought back from Babylon in a basket. But when I realized this tablet was special, I hid it in the computer sleeve of my backpack. A few weeks later, I’d found a note in my bedroom threatening “the people you love” unless I left the tablet under a bush at the Hamden Public Library. Even though the dagger that pinned the note to the desk in my bedroom had given me nightmares, I wasn’t just going to give the tablet away.
     Instead, I moved it to my car’s trunk and shoved the dagger under my mattress. And pretended nothing had happened.
     It worked out great. Until the mugging.
     After that, I bought a sheath for the dagger and wore it around my ankle. (Not that I knew anything about knives, except what I’d seen in movies.) But it was better than nothing.
     Kneeling in the dark, I slipped the knife from the sheath. “You are a time traveler,” I said as I walked across the plaza, down the street and to the parking lot. “You defeated an insane alchemist, outsmarted a Babylonian king, and stole some mammoth tusk from a Mongol warlord. You can handle a petty thief.” I tried to ignore the voice in my head saying, “Anyone who tries to steal a Babylonian tablet written in Akkadian isn’t a petty thief.”
     At the car, I held the dagger in my mouth and unlocked the door. I heard a pop. Quieter than a cap gun. The side mirror shattered. Shards of glass bounced on the asphalt, splintering into slivers that looked like needles.
     Not even a fragment of the side mirror was left. But the black plastic compartment that attached the mirror to the car was in perfect shape. Except for a small, perfectly round hole in the back. It was the size of a bullet. I went cold.
     My heart forced blood through my body, but my legs and arms felt numb.
     I didn’t even know I’d begun moving until I saw my hand throw the car door open and toss my backpack onto the passenger’s seat. Before I knew it, I was in the car, the door was shut, and I was turning the key in the ignition.
     The engine purred.
     I expected another bullet to pierce the window and rip through me. But it didn’t. At least, not yet.
     The tires squealed as I reversed and then threw the car into first gear. Something on the windshield fluttered. A sheet of folded paper. Whatever it was, I didn’t have time for it. I slammed the pedal to the floor and raced away from campus.

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