Dawn of Endless Night | Chapter 2: Cold Calling

I am releasing my novel, Dawn of Endless Night, here on my blog. I will release a chapter each week. If you enjoy the story, and/or you’d like to give your support and encouragement, please let me know in the comments.

Dawn of Endless Night

Chapter 2: Cold Calling

Jeremy took a deep breath and squared his shoulders as he crossed the street. He tried to still the voice in the back of his head that kept saying he was wasting his time and pressed his hand against the folded piece of paper in his hip pocket to reassure himself it was still there. 

All his life he’d felt like an outsider. He’d always been a nerd and a little awkward around people he didn’t know. Just the night before he’d let some of his friends drag him to a club. Dance clubs weren’t Jeremy’s thing, and he’d never felt more awkward in his life. He had met someone, though—a pretty young nursing student named Alison who’d seemed to be almost as uncomfortable in the loud club as he had been. They’d hit it off and had ended up finding a relatively quite table at the back of the club to talk. He’d gotten her number and had spent most of the morning trying to decide the best time to call her. He’d forced himself to wait until he completed his errand to Musashi Tower.

Jeremy had never had any luck with women. Hell, he’d never even had a real girlfriend before. He hoped that changed with Alison, but just thinking of the girl tied his stomach in knots and made the palms of his hands sweat. 

Awkwardness in social settings had always been a part of Jeremy’s life, but when he’d first discovered anthropology as a freshman, he’d suddenly felt like a duck in water. He’d finally gotten his bachelor’s degree the past spring, and now he had aspirations of graduate school. The only problem was that Jeremy’s GPA wasn’t high enough to get into the University of Chicago’s graduate program. He’d enjoyed his new-found freedom a little too much the first couple years, and his grades had suffered for it. 

Then, after a night of drinking to rival the good times that had got him in trouble the first time, he’d come up with a plan. Now, here he was in Chicago. He’d take more classes to raise his GPA and get to know the professors in the process. It might take a few years, but Jeremy was determined he’d get into the PhD program eventually, one way or another. 

He already knew what he wanted to do his dissertation on—“a multicultural study of the history of martial arts and their relationships with, and influences upon, the cultures they’ve diffused into.” He was planning to begin his study with the samurai and ninja traditions of ancient Japan. He looked forward to traveling abroad for research. He’d gotten into anthropology to see the world, and Japan would be the perfect place to start. He’d also decided to begin his preliminary research now to show the professors at the university he was serious.

Everything had clicked into place when he’d visited the Museum of Natural History to see an exhibit on Japanese weapons from various historical periods. He’d struck up a conversation with the curator and had learned the pieces had been loaned to the museum by a woman who lived in the city. Jeremy had been impressed by the collection. The weapons had been collected from every dynasty for the past two thousand years or so. He’d never seen anything like it.  Every piece was in exquisite condition.

His heart had leapt when he’d found out the collection belonged to a local woman. He thought it was very likely that someone who owned such a collection would know quite a bit about the relevant history. If he was lucky, maybe she was actually descended from one of the samurai or ninja families. His pulse quickened at the thought, but he knew it was too much to hope for.

Jeremy quickened his pace as he approached Musashi Tower. Jeremy had been meaning to see the tower since it had opened earlier that summer.  He’d seen it from the outside, of course. It was hard to miss.  Musashi Tower was now the tallest building in the world. It dominated Chicago’s skyline and could be seen from anywhere in the city. He’d heard there was a spectacular view from the building’s observation deck, one that put the Willis Building’s to shame. He definitely wanted to visit the observation deck today, but he knew he should save his money. It was hands-down the most prestigious piece of real estate in the city. The fact that it shared its name with ancient Japan’s greatest swordsman was a bonus in Jeremy’s book.

Jeremy had done some research into the woman whose name had been on the museum collection. There had been little real information on her, but he’d found a newspaper article that mentioned her. It had been an article about the opening of Musashi Tower. The woman’s name, Tatiana Soto, had been in a long list of contributors to the project. He hadn’t been able to find out what her affiliation with the Tower was, but in desperation he’d decided to try to get more information at the tower itself. He knew a lot of businesses had offices in the structure. Maybe he’d get lucky, and Ms. Soto would have an office there.

He looked up as he approached the building. His jaw dropped in amazement; he couldn’t help it. The skyscraper was so tall he had to crane his head back and shade his eyes with his hand to see the top of it. Doing so made him a little dizzy. Musashi Tower was really a collection of towers. It was a work of architectural art in glass and gleaming, mirror-finished steel. A beautiful and innovative construction of curves and lines. It almost looked like some kind of exotic spaceship.

Jeremy had decided against trying any of the numerous public entrances. He knew that the building, almost like a small city in its own right, was compartmentalized in a way that the various public areas were isolated from the other parts of the building. If he did find Ms. Soto here, he imagined it would be in one of the corporate sections of the tower. So he chose to enter via one of the business entrances in the section of the tower that seemed to house the administrative facilities.

Jeremy ran his fingers through his wind-blown brown hair and checked his reflection in the immaculately clean chrome and glass doors. Many people thought his perpetually tousled hair stylish; the truth was it just had a mind of its own. He shrugged at his reflection. He supposed he looked as presentable as he ever did.

He walked to the large doors. Though they were massive, they opened easily into an expansive lobby. Natural light came in through the glass front wall and doors and from skylights far overhead. Most of the surfaces were glass, mirrored steel, or polished black stone. There was not a fingerprint or speck of dust to be seen anywhere.

Paintings decorated the walls, and an assortment of sculptures stood atop pedestals throughout the room. It was simple, yet spoke of money—a lot of it. Jeremy couldn’t help but give a low whistle in appreciation. To the left and right were huge, sweeping glass spiral stairs with gleaming steel banisters.

The security guard manning the station across the room took note of Jeremy as the door closed silently behind him. The man’s steady, dark-eyed gaze tracked Jeremy as he moved about the room, admiring the sculptures. Something about the way the man looked at him made Jeremy feel like a little kid with peanut butter all over his hands. He was careful not to touch anything.

Jeremy tried to appear casual, but his stomach did somersaults. He moseyed over to stand before an electronic directory. He perused it quickly, but he didn’t see Ms. Soto’s name. He input her name in the search field on the touch screen. The system hesitated, and he began to think it had frozen, but then it displayed the information he was looking for. 

She was in a completely different part of the building. He looked at the display, bewildered. He had no idea how to get to her. There might be a way to figure it out using the directory, but he could still feel the guard’s eyes on him. He felt conspicuous standing there, likely because he and the security guard were the only ones in the room.

He took a deep breath, wishing his heartbeat would go back to normal.  He turned and approached the security station, meeting the guard’s eyes for the first time. The man was dark-skinned, tall, and deep-chested. He was imposing as hell. Jeremy cleared his throat, hoping his voice wouldn’t crack.

“Excuse me, I was wondering if maybe you could help me. I’m trying to find Tatiana Soto.” It might have been his imagination, but it seemed the guard’s eyes narrowed almost imperceptibly.

“Ms. Soto has no appointments today.” The guard’s baritone was hard.

“Oh, I don’t have an appointment.”

“Then you’re not authorized to see her. That part of the building is restricted.”

“I’m not trying to cause any trouble,” Jeremy said, trying to sound reasonable. “I just want to talk to her about her display at the museum. I won’t take much of her time, I promise.”

“You won’t be taking any of her time.”

Jeremy flinched at the unyielding tone of the guard’s voice. This was going nowhere fast. He realized now he hadn’t thought this through.

“Alright,” Jeremy said.  “How do I go about making an appointment?”

“You would need to call her receptionist for that, sir.”

“I’m sorry, could you please give me the number?”

“I’m not authorized to do that.” What little patience had been in the guard’s voice was gone.

“Is there someone else I could talk to?”

The guard’s eyes hardened. Jeremy took an involuntary step backward. He felt a slight pressure inside his head.

“I suggest you leave, sir.”

Jeremy began to turn toward the exit. 

No! I’ve got to talk to her. I’m not giving up this easily. 

He turned back to face the guard. The man blinked, seeming surprised, but then his face became an unreadable mask again. 

Most people probably piss their pants when he uses that tone with them. Jeremy felt he’d only narrowly avoided that outcome himself.

“Look, I know you’re just doing your job. But I really would like to talk to her. I’m doing some preliminary research for a paper on martial arts history. Her collection at the museum is exquisite, and I’d really like to talk to her about it. I’ll do whatever it takes—make an appointment, come back later, wait—you name it. Please, isn’t there something you can do?”

The guard stared at him for a long moment. His eyes seemed to weigh Jeremy. Then, without a word he punched a button on his console. After a moment he spoke into his headset. 

“Yes, there is a gentleman here to see Ms. Soto…. Yes, I know…. Yes, I did. He’s…insistent…. Yes…. My thoughts exactly…. Alright, thank you.” He looked up at Jeremy.

“You may go up to her reception room and wait. I can’t promise she’ll see you, but it’s the best I can do.”

“Thank you, thank you! That’s great. I’m happy to wait. I really appreciate it.”

The guard punched another button on his board, and within moments another security guard exited one of the many elevators at one end of the lobby. Like the first guard he was dressed in a black suit. He had an earpiece resembling the ones the Secret Service wore in movies.

“Escort this gentleman to the 200 reception area.”

The second guard nodded and motioned for Jeremy to follow.

The elevator was surprisingly swift; Jeremy felt his ears pop more than once. They had to take three separate elevators. Each time they switched elevators they were forced to walk down long hallways that interconnected the various parts of the tower. 

The elegance of the place was inspiring, but what impressed Jeremy even more was the technology. The elevators all had thumbprint readers as part of their interface. 

Finally, after the third elevator ride and a long walk along a connecting hall, the security guard opened a door and motioned Jeremy inside. 

Several plush and very comfortable-looking couches and chairs were arranged about the room. A fountain burbled in one corner, and a baby grand player piano provided some music from the other side. He recognized one of Mozart’s concertos. One entire wall was glass, affording a view of the city below. He must be nearly as high as the observation deck. 

He walked up to the large, curved reception desk. An attractive, professionally dressed woman watched his approach. Her brown hair was up, accentuating her slender neck. He smiled, wishing he had the confidence to make conversation with a woman like her. His face burned at the thought, Alison’s face flashing across his mind. He’d only just met Alison the night before.  They weren’t even dating. There was no reason he should feel guilty about looking at another woman. Was there? 

The woman’s eyes studied him silently, making him feel even more nervous.

“Hi. I’m here to see Ms. Soto,” he said.

The woman didn’t even bother checking her computer. 

“You don’t have an appointment.” It wasn’t a question.

“No, I don’t.” He looked for a name tag, but she wasn’t wearing one. 

The woman shook her head, her expression conveying disbelief. Something in her eyes told Jeremy that she thought he was a fool, though he didn’t have the faintest idea why. 

“I hope for your sake you’re not a solicitor….”

“No, no, nothing like that. I saw her collection of Japanese weapons at the museum. I’m doing research on Japanese martial arts, and I wanted to ask her a few questions. I promise I won’t take much of her time.” He gave the woman what he hoped was his most winning smile.

She shook her head again, though a small smile played at her lips.  “Go ahead and have a seat. I’ll see what I can do.”

Jeremy sat on one of the couches and took some deep, calming breaths. He wiped his sweaty palms on his pants, wondering why he was so nervous. He supposed it was because of the receptionist’s demeanor. He thought maybe she was afraid of Ms. Soto.

Jeremy was glad for the player piano as the city outside darkened to late afternoon, then twilight, then night. As the time wore on, his hopes of meeting Ms. Soto waned. He kept waiting for the receptionist to ask him to leave because the building was closing. He tried to think of a way to strike up a conversation with the woman, but nothing came. He tried to convince himself he wasn’t talking to her because of Alison, and not because he was a coward.

Finally, after nearly five hours, the receptionist called his name, as if he wasn’t the only one waiting. Jeremy’s head snapped up; he’d nearly fallen asleep. He went up to the desk. 

“Ms. Soto will see you. Take the elevator up to the 209th floor.” She motioned to the elevator to the right of the reception desk.

“Thanks. I really appreciate it.” Wow, he was going to the 209th floor. He really was above any other floor in any other building in the city.

He turned to go, but her voice forestalled him. 

“Sir?”

He turned back. 

“Yes?”

She motioned him closer, lowered her voice. 

“Are you sure you want to go up there?” She seemed genuinely concerned.

“Yeah, I’m sure,” Jeremy said with a frown. “She’s probably the best source I’ll find on this side of the ocean. Why do you ask?”

The woman looked to either side, lowering her voice further. Jeremy had to lean over the desk to hear her. 

“If you meet with her, your life will never be the same.” Her tone said the change would not be a good one.

Jeremy studied her. She colored. 

“Why do you say that?” he asked.

 “I’ve already said too much,” she said with a shake of her head. She was practically whispering now. “Just do yourself a favor—go home.”

Jeremy gave her a confident smile. He was more nervous than ever, but the woman’s mysterious words intrigued him. 

“I really want to see her. Thanks again for your help.”

The woman glared at him. “Suit yourself.”

When Jeremy exited the elevator, he found himself in a short hallway. At the end was an ornate set of wooden double doors. Two nondescript gentlemen in suits stood in front of the rich cherry-finished doors. Their faces showed no expression as he walked up to them, but one of them nodded at Jeremy and opened one of the doors.

The room was large and open, ovoid in shape, with a high arching ceiling. Despite its size, the room was very cozy. It felt warmer than the rest of the building. 

The large curved wall on Jeremy’s right was all glass, displaying a breathtaking view of the Chicago skyline. The wall to his left was finished in a burgundy varnished wood. A collection of weapons was displayed on the wall that put the exhibit at the museum to shame. Jeremy couldn’t even begin to guess how many millions of dollars were hanging on that wall.

As Jeremy absorbed this exotic setting, a woman came toward him who could only be Ms. Soto. She’d entered from another set of double doors in the far end of the left wall. 

She looked to be of Asian descent. She wore her dark hair in a French braid. She seemed more like some man’s impossible ideal of the perfect woman than a real person. If Jeremy had seen her picture instead of seeing her in the flesh, he would have believed there’d been liberal use of an air brush. But she was real. She didn’t even seem to be wearing make-up of any kind—she didn’t need it. Jeremy had always imagined angels as blond like Alison, but after seeing Ms. Soto, he would forevermore picture her face in association with those celestial beings.

Jeremy was so blown away by her beauty that at first he didn’t notice that there was something different about her. When it did register he couldn’t determine quite what the oddity was. She moved with the grace of a dancer. She wore a black Under Armour bodysuit and black tabi, Japanese split-toed shoes. The Under Armour molded to her form reminded Jeremy of a wetsuit, except the material was so thin he could see the contours of individual muscles. Jeremy thought she’d make a perfect visual aid for a musculoskeletal anatomy class. 

He tried again to wrap his head around what seemed different about her, other than her attire, then gave up. She was way too distracting. He hoped he would figure it out later after he’d cleared his head.

She came up to him and gave him the smallest of bows, merely a slight nod of the head. If it weren’t for her dark hair arranged elegantly atop her head, she would only come up to his chin. Jeremy bowed deeply in return. Ms. Soto smiled, and he looked away, embarrassed. He knew he was blushing furiously. He smelled an exotic perfume he couldn’t identify. The smell of her sent a flush of heat through him. He could feel his pulse hammering in his temples.

“Normally I would offer a guest a seat, but due to the purpose of your visit, I assume you would like to take a closer look at my collection.” She turned, gesturing at the weapons display with one perfectly manicured hand. The sound of her voice—soft, low, sensuous, strong—sent shivers of pleasure through him, almost like her tongue was tracing lightly up his spine. The mental image made him dizzy, blood rushing in his ears.

Jeremy nodded dumbly, finally able to resume breathing when her eyes left his. 

“Yes, thank you,” he mumbled. He felt like he was suffocating. She had a presence about her that was like a force of nature, squeezing him, caressing him, soaking into his pores. Her scent filled his head; his eyes couldn’t stop drinking in the sight of her. His entire being resonated with the sound of her voice. He was a guitar string slowly being stretched tighter and tighter, vibrating faster and faster. He wondered how long it would be before he snapped.

He was drowning in her. Any moment he would sink below the waves, lose what little control he still had. More than anything he wanted to avoid making a fool of himself in front of this woman.

His mind flailed out for something to hold onto. He locked his eyes on the weapons display. Focus on the weapons. I’m here to see the weapons.

The display was breathtaking. Jeremy recognized some of the weapons.  Though the majority were Japanese and Chinese in origin, there seemed to be examples from all parts of the world, even Native American weapons. Not only was each and every Japanese weapon represented, but there were examples from each of the historic dynasties. He found himself lingering in front of the display of swords, the curves of the katanas’ blades shifting from more pronounced to more subtle with the passing of the centuries.

“What do you think?” Ms. Soto’s soft, slightly accented voice startled him. He jumped and turned to find her standing much closer to him. He flushed again, taking a step back. 

His brain mired as he struggled to find something intelligent to say. It seemed some thought was possible as long as he didn’t look at her. 

“It’s amazing. Many of these weapons I’ve never even seen pictures of before. I have a million questions, starting with how you came by such a collection?” He glanced at her.

She smiled, and Jeremy’s heart thudded in his chest. Her glossed lips parted to speak, and he felt dizzy. Were they glossed? Or were they just moist? He quickly tore his eyes away from her again, pretending to study the display. He took the opportunity to take a couple steps away from her. It was like trying to separate two magnets. He’d been attracted to women before, of course—many times—but never this literally. 

“I don’t have time for a million questions. At least, not tonight. I’ve collected these pieces throughout the years.” 

He looked at her again. He couldn’t help it. She studied him openly, and her scrutiny made him feel even more awkward and self-conscious. He made the mistake of meeting her gaze as her eyes came back up to his face, and he felt another hot flush move through his body. He wanted her. He’d never wanted a woman like this. His whole body sung with desire for her. He had to snap out of it!

“Now I have a question for you.” 

Was it just him, or had her voice grown softer, more throaty…? Seductive even. Her eyes held his like a vice. He couldn’t look away, didn’t want to look away.   

She smiled a slow smile. 

“Is your interest academic or functional?”

“Huh?” He cleared his throat. “What do you mean?” My interest is sexual! a distant part of his mind screamed. He was going to blush himself to death.

She stepped toward the wall, raised one delicate arm, and lifted a katana from the display. 

“Do you know how to wield one of these?”

He laughed, embarrassed. He’d forgotten they were talking about weapons. 

“No, no. I’m afraid not. I’m doing research for my dissertation.”

“Ah. I see.” She placed the sword back in its place on the wall. “That’s too bad. If you would like to learn, I’d be willing to teach you. But you’ll have to do something for me in return.”

“Really?” For a moment Jeremy almost forgot his discomfort. As a kid he’d always dreamed of being a knight or a samurai. He supposed that was part of the reason he’d decided to study Asian martial arts. “Wait a minute.  You know how to use one of these?” He gestured toward the swords.

“I am quite proficient with all these weapons, and many more.”

“Wow…. Well, yeah, I would love to learn. But I really don’t have any money. Grad student for a research degree!” He laughed.

Ms. Soto remained serious. 

“I do not care about money. I have more than I will ever need. If you truly wish to learn, we will negotiate another form of payment.”

“Really?” Jeremy asked, enthused. “You mean, like I clean your house or something like that? Like the masters of old?” He found himself thinking of Karate Kid. Wax on, wax off.

“Something like that.” She smiled. 

“You’re on!” Jeremy grinned. Even if he’d had zero interest in swords or martial arts, he would have agreed just to spend more time in this intoxicating woman’s presence. 

“When do we start?”

“If you’re willing, immediately. Learning the sword is a long-term commitment. You will have plenty of time to ask all the questions you wish before and after our practices.”

Jeremy couldn’t stop a short laugh from escaping. It was not a giggle. 

“Awesome!” He couldn’t believe his luck. Not only would he get outstanding research for his project and learn to use a sword, but he’d have a chance to get to know Ms. Soto. 

“Learning the sword requires a serious commitment,” she said again. “I will only teach you if you agree to finish what you’ve started and practice diligently.”

Jeremy put his right hand over his heart and bowed. 

“I promise, Ms. Soto.”

His response seemed to please her. 

“You may call me Tatiana. Remain here and enjoy the display. I will return in a few minutes.” She swept from the room with a swift, graceful, stride.

Jeremy turned to admire the impressive weapons display. As he examined the pieces more closely, he saw that some had fine scratches and marks that had not been completely polished away—as if they had been used in sparring, or perhaps even actual combat. He moved slowly along the wall, taking it all in.

“Here, take these.” Her voice startled him. 

He had not realized he was no longer alone. The woman made no sound when she moved! He turned to face her, his heart in his throat, trying to feign composure. 

She carried two bokken—wooden practice swords shaped like katanas—that were sheathed in round plastic scabbards. She also carried two black martial arts belts. She held out a bokken and belt for him to take.

Jeremy looked at her. “You sure you wanna give me a black belt? I can promise you I’m not ready for that!”

Tatiana snorted, somehow making it a delicate sound. 

“It’s only a color. The use of color to denote rank is a modern phenomenon. In the old days they were more practical. I was first trained in the arts of the ninja. Stealth was always among the primary considerations when choosing our attire. Besides, if you look closely, you will see the belt is not black but a dark gray. Black is often too dark to blend into shadows; this color is more appropriate.”

Jeremy nodded as he took the belt, then watched closely as she demonstrated how to tie the belt and then slide the scabbarded bokken into it, so it hung across his left hip.

“The sword can be worn across the front or back of the waist, or on the side, depending on the need of the moment.” She demonstrated, and as Jeremy followed suit, he was surprised how easy it was to change the sword’s position. “For now, wear it on your left side. The first thing I will teach you is how to draw and sheathe your blade. That will suffice for a first lesson. When you have become proficient in the technique, return to me for your next lesson.”

Jeremy barely avoided rolling his eyes. Some first lesson! Tatiana glanced at him sharply, as if she knew what he was thinking, and he endeavored to keep his face more passive. 

Tatiana demonstrated the technique. She snapped the bokken from its scabbard and dropped into a low battle stance in one fluid motion, the hilt of the bokken level with her ear, the blade edge-up and parallel to the floor. She then resheathed the sword just as quickly and stood before him in a casual stance. She made it look easy. 

Rome wasn’t built in a day, he reminded himself, poignantly aware he studied at the feet of a master. Who was this woman?

After over an hour of drawing and sheathing his bokken under Tatiana’s meticulous instruction, Jeremy was thankful she hadn’t chosen to teach him more. She handled her bokken with the fluid unconscious grace of a ballet dancer, and he felt like a drunk hillbilly trying to line-dance by comparison. 

It didn’t help that he was constantly being distracted. Tatiana’s body in motion was even more enthralling than it was at rest. When she demonstrated he became lost in the flexing of her muscles as she moved her shapely limbs. The look of quiet concentration and serene focus on her angelic face made his heart squeeze. As much as he battled his own ignorance and awkwardness in his movements, he fought his constant arousal and ever-growing attraction to her. 

She had to know. She would have to be blind not to notice how he stared at her, or see his continuous blushing. She must know his stammering for what it was. But she gave no indication that she realized how he yearned for her. If she did, surely she’d say something or at least be distant or short with him. Wouldn’t she? But she didn’t; she wasn’t. She was patient, efficient, and professional. She was either completely ignorant of her effect on him or had unbelievable control over her expressions and demeanor. 

Despite his clumsiness, she never laughed at him, never mocked him, never lost patience. She would merely ask him what he’d done wrong; and once he had elucidated to her satisfaction, she would simply say, “Again.”

By the end of their practice, Jeremy was covered in sweat—as much from sheer force of concentration as from physical exertion. It was only as he was walking home, his bokken enshrouded in a black silk bag cradled in his arm, that he realized he’d forgotten to ask her any questions. There was also the matter of their arrangement for his training. Tatiana never had said exactly what she wanted in return. Tatiana’s time was undoubtedly valuable. Why had she chosen to spend so much of it with him? What was her angle? 

Jeremy forced himself to relax. It was true, Tatiana had been in control of the situation from minute one, but he’d been blindsided by her.  Next time would be different. Next time he would ask his questions and get some answers. Next time he would find out exactly what she wanted from him. 

Despite his uneasiness, Jeremy had to smile. Next time. There was going to be a next time.

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