“Sure.” He laughed. “It’s what all you bloody Americans come here hoping to find. That and a pot o’ gold, wouldn’t that be the right of it, Seamus?” He smirked at his blond companion, who smirked broadly back.
“What’s that?” I said warily.
Flapping his arms like little wings, he winked. “Why, that’d be a wee fairy, lass.”
A wee fairy. Right. Uh-huh. With Tourist stamped all over my forehead, I took the steaming mug, paid for the coffee, and escorted my flaming cheeks back to my table.
Crazy old woman, I thought irritably, closing down my Internet session. If I ever saw her again, she was going to get an earful.
It was the fog that got me lost.
I would have been okay if it had been a sunny day. But fog has a way of transforming even the most familiar landscape into something foreign and sinister, and the place was already so foreign to me that it quickly took on sinister attributes.
One minute I thought I was heading straight for The Clarin House, plowing down block after block without really paying much attention, the next I was in a dwindling crowd on a street that I hadn’t seen before, and suddenly, I was one of only three people on an eerily quiet fog-filled lane. I had no idea how far I’d come. My mind was on other things. I might have walked for miles.
I had what I thought was a really smart idea. I would follow one of the other pedestrians and surely they would lead me back to the main part of town.
Buttoning my jacket against the misting rain, I picked the closer of the two, a fiftyish woman in a beige raincoat and a blue scarf. I had to stick close because the fog was so thick.
Two blocks later, she was clutching her purse tightly to her side and darting nervous glances over her shoulder. It took me a few minutes to figure out what she was frightened of—me. Belatedly I recalled what I’d read in my guidebook about crime in the inner city. Innocent-looking youths of both genders were responsible for much of it.
I tried to reassure her. “I’m lost,” I called. “I’m just trying to get back to my hotel. Please, can you help me?”
“Stop following me! Stay away,” she cried, quickening her pace, coattails flapping.
“All right, I’m staying.” I stopped where I stood. The last thing I wanted to do was chase her off; the other pedestrian was gone, I needed her. The fog was getting denser by the minute and I had no idea where I was. “Look, I’m sorry I scared you. Could you just point me toward the Temple Bar District? Please? I’m an American tourist and I’m lost.”
Without turning or slowing in the least, she flung an arm out in a general leftward direction, then disappeared around the corner, leaving me alone in the fog.
I sighed. Left it was.
I went to the corner, turned, and began walking at a moderate pace. Taking stock of my surroundings as I went, I stepped it up a bit. I seemed to be heading deeper into a dilapidated, industrial part of the city. Storefronts with the occasional apartment above gave way to rundown warehouse-like buildings on both sides of the street with busted-out windows and sagging doors. The sidewalk whittled down to barely a few feet wide and was increasingly trash-littered with every step. I started to feel strongly nauseated, I suppose from the stench of the sewers. There must have been an old paper factory nearby; thick husks of porous yellowed parchment of varying sizes tumbled and blew along the empty streets. Narrow, dingy alleyways were marked at the entrances with peeling painted arrows, pointing to docks that looked as if the last time they’d received a delivery was twenty years ago.
Here, a crumbling smokestack stretched up, melting into the fog. There, an abandoned car sat with the driver’s door ajar and, outside it, a pair of shoes and a pile of clothing, as if the driver had simply gotten out, stripped, and left everything behind. It was eerily quiet. The only sounds were the muted muffle of my footsteps and the slow dripping of gutters emptying into drainpipes. The farther I walked into the decaying neighborhood, the more I wanted to run, or at least give way to a vigorous sprint, but I worried if there were unsavory denizens of the human sort in the area, the rapid pounding of my heels against the pavement might draw their attention. I was afraid this part of the city was so deserted because the businesses had moved out when the gangs had moved in. Who knew what lurked behind those broken windows? Who knew what crouched beyond that half-opened door?
The next ten minutes were some of the most harrowing of my life. I was alone in a bad section of a foreign city with no idea whether I was going the right way or headed straight for something worse. Twice I thought I heard something rustling about in an alley as I passed. Twice I swallowed panic and refused to run. It was impossible not to think of Alina, of the similar locale in which her body had been found. I couldn’t shake the feeling that there was something wrong here, and it was something far more wrong than mere abandonment and decay. This part of the city didn’t just feel empty. It felt, well . . . forsaken . . . like I should have passed a sign ten blocks ago that said Abandon Hope, All Ye Who Enter Here.