CHAPTER ELEVEN

“FACTOID,” Tom says as our plane touches down. “La Aurora International Airport Is the fourth busiest airport in Central America. In terms of passenger traffic, it is surpassed only by  scuttlebut International Airport in Panama, Juan compliancy international Airport in Costa Rica, and Comalapa International Airport in El, Salvador."

“Truly, you are a bottomless pit of obscure and useless information,” I say as I stick an inflight magazine back in its pouch.

Tom smiles and shrugs his shoulders. “Ask my mom. She’ll tell you I owe it all to a misspent youth playing Trivia Pursuit with my sister. Once we were able to answer all their questions, we made up our own.”

Tom goes on for a time about the relative size of various airports in Central and South America, but I am not paying much attention. I am far more concerned with whether or not Carlos will keep his promise to meet us here. Carlos knows
how to get to Pinkal. I don’t. Jack had told me how to find my server once I got to Pinka. It's in a clearing in the jungle a hundred yards along an extension from the pyramid's north edge. Among other things, its chips contain a copy of the internet as it was just a few weeks after Goggle began its immense editing. Plus they contain all of the sites I am editing and Jack's priceless cryptonomic software. It's important that Carlos takes us to Pinkal.

No need to have worried. Carlos is waiting for us as we enter the terminal. He shakes my  hand. For an older, hefty man, Carlos has a firm grip. Judging from the look on Tom’s face when he shakes Carlo’s hand, he shares my surprise. Carlos leads us through the terminal to a door marked No Exit: Authorized Military Personnel Only. He slides a card into a slot and the door snaps open.

Sitting on the tarmac near a large, gray corrugated metal Quonset hut is a helicopter that looks like it should be put out of its misery. A door is missing, and the canopy is cracked clear across. The chopper is dirty and dented and has to be at least half a century old. “I know where I’ve seen this thing,” Tom says. “It’s transporting wounded at the beginning of every Mash episode. I can picture Hot Lips scrambling off a cot, separating herself from Frank, rushing off to assist a wise-cracking Hawkeye perform ground-breaking surgery.” Having hacked into cable at a very young age, Tom is a connoisseur of ancient TV shows.

If Tom’s referral to U.S. popular culture means anything to Carlos, one would never know it. Oblivious to Tom,  Carlos pats the craft’s fuselage. “They don’t build them like this anymore,” he insists.

“Thank God,” Tom mutters.

The copter’s antique engine sputters to life on the third try. The rotors seem resentful as they begin gathering speed. It is like they prefer motionlessness, and inertia is just too big an obstacle to overcome. Grudgingly they made their rounds. Grudgingly, grudgingly, grudgingly. I am reminded of the little train that thought it could. But bit-by-bit they get up to speed. After about thirty seconds they're twirling as fast as they ever have. Soon enough we are airborne, swishing across the treetops. Carlos shows himself to be a capable pilot, maneuvering gracefully around the occasional taller tree.  For several minutes he says nothing as he was either concentrating on flying or considering other matters. Finally he says, “I know you want to see Pinkal, and we will, but first there is somebody I want you to meet.”

I don't like this. Who is this guy, anyway? For all I know, he or his cohorts killed Jack. I have heard many stories of Americans being abducted in Central America. Supposedly many folks down here assume all Americans are rich. Of course, there couldn’t be a sillier notion. Nobody is going to pay big bucks to get Tom and me freed. I hope Carlos realizes this.

“I am afraid a few precautions are in order,” Carlos says as he brings out a couple of rags from under his sear. He orders us to blindfold ourselves.  “Trust me, it’s for your own protection,” he insists. Think of it as a local custom."

"When in Rome," I mutter. Right then I wish I were in Rome. Anywhere but here would do. Still, blindfolding ourselves seems to be our only choice. The cloths are filthy and stink of old engine oil, but we wrap them about our faces without complaining. What's the point? Nobody says anything for the next ten minutes. I try to relax and keep my breathing regular. I have6 to think of Jack and the fiends who mutilated him. Maybe Carlos found him, but maybe, for all I knew, Carlos eviscerated him. Whatever is going to happen is going to happen, and I realize there isn’t a damn thing I can do about it. Ten minutes later I feel the copter begin its descent. The landing goes smoothly. “You can remove your blindfolds now, ”Carlos says as he opens the canopy.

When my eyes adjust to the bright sunlight, I realize we are within a large, circular clearing in what seems to be dense forest. Along one edge, there are half a dozen tents, each of which looks capable of housing four or five men. As of now I see just one man. He sits at an old card table in the center of the clearing. On the table are a handgun that I recognize as a 40-caliber glock, a nearly empty glass, and a half-full bottle of Jim Beam. He is dressed in shorts and an olive drab fatigue jacket. Bearded and deeply tanned, he needs a haircut. He is holding a paperback book, and when I get closer I see it's a Tom Clancy. 

“Gentlemen,” Carlos said, “I want you to meet Herman Klutz.”

The man ignores me and focuses on Tom. “So,” he says, “we meet at last.”

Tom is focusing on a weapon on the ground beside the man. He points at it. "Nice gun, he says. "A Micro-Uzi."

"Actually, it's the Micro-Uzi Pro. It's not the latest Uzi, but in my mind it's the greatest. You'll notice the grip has been redesigned to facilitate control in full-automatic mode."

"I see that now," Tom replies. "It permits two-handed operation."

"Handy in an emergency," the man says.

I wonder if in the vernacular guns are like boats. Yachtsmen and naval officers never refer to boats; do gangsters and terrorists ever refer to guns? Quickly I realize I am too much the writer, and need to focus on our host, who says, “But enough chit chat. We haven’t been formally introduced, but our paths have crossed. Your work in infiltrating the Dark Net caused me considerable Inconvenience."

I am liking this conversation less and less.

“My work for the government in this area shut down several illicit enterprises,” Tom admits. “Was one of these yours?”

I am not liking Tom’s choice of words much either.

“As far as I was concerned, my enterprise was perfectly licit,” the man says. “Unfortunately, the government and I have often viewed things differently.”

Tom looks like he has found a kindred spirit. “Governments sure can be the pits, can’t they?” he says.

The man sighs and nods his head. “I believe it was your Thomas Jefferson who suggested that the government that governs least governs best and that revolutions were in order every twenty years..”

“Jefferson was, indeed, a wise man,” Tom agrees. "In the United States, we have a government that governs practically not at all, but most of its functions have been taken over by Google. Back in the day, the government gave me a very hard time, and now Google is all too happy to take over that job. Computing is what I do best, but I am not supposed to come within a hundred feet of a p.c. I can go to jail for checking my e-mail. That was my reward for helping them break the dark Internet.”

“Let me extend my sincere sympathies. You might be interested in knowing that me and my comrades are hankering for a government hereabouts that governs not at all. And we don't have a Goggle to occupy the void."

"Sounds like heaven on earth," Tom says. I am pretty sure Tom’s enthusiasm is of dubious authenticity. I certainly hope so.

“You might like it here,” the man says. “We would give your computer use a totally free hand. I  suspect you often sidestepthe restrictions you're supposed to observe."

I am relieved when Tom begins to show a little wariness. “Whatever gives you that idea?” he asks.

“Because your friend the Captain here could not have written the encryption code I have found so very useful.”

"It was a simply exercise in cryptology," Tom says.

"I also have it on good authority that you have have plans for cobbling together a basic quantum computer."

Tom looks startled. Five years ago, he wrote a paper suggesting how an all-but-forgotten government satellite could, in theory, be harnessed for quantum computing. Tom submitted the paper to an obscure technical journal, but it was never published. Tom had done nothing more with this idea. Had he been caught working on a working model, he might never again have seen the light of day.

The bearded man extends his hand to Tom. “My given name does happen to be Klutz,” he said, “but I prefer to be called El Cobra.” Tom shakes his hand.

I am on the verge of taking offense. I am, after all, the head honcho, at least between Tom and myself. Then I feel a shock of recognition. “I know who you really are,” I say. “You’re my mysterious benefactor, the man who paid me a good sum of money for an encryption code.”

“That would be me,” he allows, “but tell me, do I remind you of anybody?”

“Gee, I don’t know. One of the Smith brothers maybe?” I am pretty sure he has no idea who the Smith brothers were, a dangerous assumption considering how easily he could reach that glock.

“I am thinking of the early Fidel Castro.”

I decide to be agreeable. “Yeah, sure, I can see the resemblance, I guess." There is little, if any, real resemblance, but I decide it couldn't hurt to humor the man.

“All you bearded guys look alike,” Tom chimes in. “So what do you do out here in the jungle?”

I knew I don't like the idea of heckling this guy. He has shown no signs of having a sense of humor. His expression doesn’t change, but he reaches out and edges his pistol a bit nearer his half-full glass. It is a casual move, not overtly threatening, but I realize if the man is trying to unnerve me, he is doing a damn good job.

“We like to think of ourselves as merry pranksters,” he says. “We engage in all sorts of shenanigans. Sometimes we sneak into officials’ apartments and short-sheet their beds or loosen the tops of their saltshakers, stuff like that. We’re a real thorn in their sides.”

Tom seems to be taking this guy at face value. “Sounds like a lot of fun,” he says. “But what makes you interested in me?”

“There are groups similar to mine all over the country. We have used your program to keep in touch. The problem is, the government has broken it.”

Unless my eyes are deceiving me, Tom is positively beaming. “So, at least for a time, my program proved helpful?” he asks. He is fishing for further compliments and El Cobra obliges.

“For quite a while it was extremely helpful,” he says. “But a word to the wise: Whatever you do, don’t mention your authorship of the program in any future resume you might pen.”

“Not likely. I am in trouble if I ever mention coming near a computer.”

“You’re a bright lad, but how much do you know of the history of my country?”

“Only a little bit. The word Guatemala means land of trees, and it is  the most populous country  in Central America. I know that Mayan ruins can be found in many places. More than half of Guatemalans are descendants of the indigenous Mayans. Tikal, in northern Guatemala, is the premier tourist attraction, boasting some 3,000 Maya buildings dating from 600 B.C. to A.D. 900. At 212 feet, Tikal's Temple IV is the tallest pre-Columbian structure in the Americas."

The man strokes his beard thoughtfully. "I am impressed. Nearly all of the Gringos I have encountered have been appallingly ignorant about my country. You are a refreshing exception. But there is much more you ought to know."

"What sort of thing?" Tom asks.

“Well, from the get-go, Guatemala has been a land of murder and mayhem. With just an occasional let-up to catch our collective breaths, we’ve murdered one another with nearly unending gusto. Mayan city centers go back to at least 600 B.C., and, near as we can tell, the inhabitants immediately began butchering one another. In the latter part of the twentieth century, we had a civil war that went on for 34 years. Way more than 100,000 people were killed. Your government contributed to the mayhem. Your people supported the most ruthless governmental leaders. Your United Fruit Company slaughtered thousands of our indigenous people.”

“It wasn’t my United Fruit Company,” Tom notes. “Besides eating the occasional banana, I have had nothing to do with it. But I can see why you’re pissed.”

“That’s putting it mildly. Certainly we’re entitled. Me especially. I assume you’ve heard of the disappeared?”

I can’t tell if this is a statement or a question.

“Disappeared? Disappeared what?” Tom asks.

I guess it's a question.

“Disappeared people. Over the years, thousands of people have simply vanished. Here one day, gone the next without a trace. We call them the disappeared."

"Magic?" Tom asks.

"Some days it seems like it. One day they’re here, then, poof, they’re gone.”

I wonder if Tom is serious when he asks, “Do they ever return?”

“Never. The disappeared stay that way forever. Officially,it's a huge mystery. Unofficially, the fact that nearly all of the disappeared have offended the government in one way or another hasn’t gone unnoticed."

Tom can't be serious when he asks, “So you suspect your government has caused your own people to just disappear?”

“There are a few things you have to bear in mind. First off, the term 'Guatemalan people' is meaningless. Guatemala is home to more than a hundred distinct ethnic groups speaking at least 20 languages. Our diversity is truly mind-boggling. Of all our groupings, Mayans are the most numerous and most victimized. Most of the disappeared are poor and indigenous, victims of centuries of exploitation.”

 Tom looks astounded, but I know he can be a good actor.

“My country has a long history of criminal mismanagement,” El Cobra continues. “The government and, especially, the military have been guilty of countless atrocities. The Guatemalan security apparatus—death squads, intelligence units, police officers, military counter- insurgency forces—did not disappear after our Civil War, but rather mutated into criminal organizations with close ties to the government. They’re engaged in myriad unpleasant activities including arms trafficking, money laundering, extortion, human smuggling, black-market adoptions, and kidnapping for ransom.”

“Sounds like somebody ought to call the cops,” Tom says.

“They are the cops,” El Cobra replies. “I am associated with a group of men determined to replace them.”

“You’re very articulate,” Tom observes. “You seem more like a professor than a soldier. What got you involved in local politics?”

“When I was a small boy, my parents disappeared. My mother and father were there when I went to bed, and when I woke up in the morning they were gone. No trace of them has ever surfaced. I have no idea why whoever took them spared me. I think now they wish they hadn’t.”

“How did you survive?” Tom asks.

 “My grandfather, who was in Miami, had made a fortune with his import-export business. I am quite sure that much of what he imported was cocaine. Anyway, he had me brought stateside, and I grew up in lavish surroundings. Later I attended law school at one of your great universities. I graduated near the top of my class and got offers to join important firms. But the fate of my mother and father was always in the back of my mind.”

“You have no idea what might have happened to them?” Tom wonders.

“There are things I can surmise, but nothing I can prove. My father was a journalist. He was associated with an unauthorized broadsheet, and often he wrote articles critical of the government. Nothing particularly incendiary, or so I’ve been told. Being a family man, he is said to have been very cautious. They tell me he never suggested that any of the higher ups might have been corrupt. He aimed much lower. It’s all hearsay; I’ve never seen any of his work. It’s impossible to find any trace of the paper he wrote for. It too has disappeared.”

Tom seems to be deeply engrossed in the man’s story. “You have no idea what he wrote?" he asks.

“I’ve been told that his last article implicated several low-level officials in sex trafficking. Mayan girls were being abducted and smuggled into the United States. Your government was doing what it could to cover their tracks. Don’t look so shocked. Your government has a long history of supporting our most despicable leaders. They turn a blind eye to all sorts of the most barbaric actions.”

Tom looks puzzled. “So let me get this straight. You’re leading a rebellion against a corrupt government? You want to bring these miscreants to justice? You’re endeavoring to bring real democracy to Guatemala?”

“Well, maybe not real democracy exactly. I don’t think the people are ready for that. But I am championing a regime change. I’d like to see somebody else in charge. I believe I would be an excellent choice.”

“You’re tossing your hat into the ring?”

I don't know if Tom is humoring him or being simple-minded. I don't think El Cobra knows either.He gives Tom a long, hard, searching look, but doesn't appear to reach any conclusions.  The man may have given up since he changes the subject. “Enough about me," he says. "I am interested in quantum computing."

Tom still looks puzzled. Then he says, “I guess you're talking about my paper. It was a bit on the silly side. I couldn't even get it published. It was an academic exercise. Highly theoretical. I am not at all sure it would ever work.”

“We know that,” El Cobra allows. “We just want you to give it your best shot.”

Tom replies quickly, "Sorry, but I can do that. Conditions of my probation would prohibit it."

El Cobra responds even more quickly, "Out here those conditions don't apply. We're the law here."

“You realize this server would involve tapping into a U.S. satellite,“ Tom notes. “True, the government seems to have lost interest in it, but I suspect that interest would be revised if I got caught tampering with it. I take it you're not at all concerned about the legal implications.”

El Cobra doesn't try to constrain his laughter.  “We’re willing to take our chances,” he says between snorts. "You might try thinking that we have special permission for such endeavors. It's a gift we gave ourselves some time ago."

“If you read my paper, you realize I said that such a computer would be tremendously expensive. Way beyond my means or pretty much anybody else's.”

“Don’t worry about the cost,” El Cobra insists. “We’ll cover the expenses. According to your article, such a computer would make its servers completely anonymous. Impossible to track. In the past year, the government has intensified its efforts to bust our communications. We’re finding it necessary to move our server every seven to ten days. This is very inconvenient.”

“I can’t possibly do as you ask,” Tom replies. “Even if I had the parts, the server would take weeks to construct.”

“Trust me, we realize that. We would like you to remain here as our guest while you do the work we require. We have access to whatever parts you need.”

“Oh I wouldn’t want to impose. Besides I have commitments back home.”

El Cobra sighs. He looks a little uncomfortable and is no longer laughing. “I am afraid we’re going to have to insist. But don’t worry about the accommodations. We can make you quite comfortable.”

“You... you can’t do this,” I stammer, realizing immediately how stupid I sound. Of course, he can do this. Who is going to stop him? Certainly not me or Tom, and nobody else is available. I realize I could try to snatch the man’s gun, but the man is a lot closer to it than I am. Besides Carlos is standing off to the side with an AK-47 that looks cocked and primed for action.

El Cobra doesn't bother humiliating me, sparing my feelings by not pointing out the obvious. Instead he comes on like what once would have been called a Wall Street businessman. “This can’t be anything but good for your business,” he points out. “I happen to know that several of your clients would very much like knowing you have an anonymous server with utterly uncrackable encryption.”

He is right, of course, but this makes the situation no less horrifying. I look at Tom and am somewhat surprised to see he doesn’t have the terrified expression of somebody being abducted. He looks thoughtful, and I suspect his mind is already deeply involved with the technical aspects of hacking into mini-quantum computing. I have never known Tom to back off from a challenge.

“I guess you’ve made us an offer we can’t refuse,” I say. Nobody smiles, so I assume The Godfather has escaped their notice.

Back in the copter and blindfolded, I can feel the thing change course repeatedly. Their winding course eliminates any thoughts I might have had about returning to El Cobra’s encampment. No way could I ever lead anybody there. Not that El Cobra is at all likely to stay put. The two of us ride silently for several minutes before Carlos speaks. “It would be better for both of us if you keep to yourself what went on back there.”

I don't reply.

“I have held high rank in the Guatemalan Army for thirty years,” he continues. “I have many good friends in high places. If you should make trouble, I am afraid it would become dog eat dog, and believe me I am a much bigger dog. Think of pit bull versus Chihuahua. A commotion would also place your friend Tom in great jeopardy. You might be able to make my life a bit uncomfortable, but most of my comrades don’t really like North Americans, and I could find myself forced to make your life much shorter. Nothing personal mind you. Survival of the fittest and all that. Life would go on except for yours and Tom's. Do I make myself clear?”

“Crystal," I say. "But tell me one thing. Did Jack do something to offend you guys?”

“Absolutely not. Let me assure you, we have no idea what happened to your archaeologist friend. We have, however, found the server he secreted near Pinkal. We've taken it elsewhere, but are taking very good care of it. We're assuming you hope to get it back one day.”

I guess I have no reason to visit Pinkal."

“None whatsoever. I could fly you there, but why bother? We've searched every inch of the place,and found no clues pertaining to Jack's murder. Please believe me when I say we have had no quarrel with you, your friend Tom, or with Jack. We would like to remain on good terms with you of you if for no other reason than Tom's computer might require maintenance. We are not evil men. When we kill, we have good reason.”

Back at the airport, we land next to the Quonset hut. I haven’t spoken to Carlos in ten minutes, and can see no reason to now. Carlos opens the door to the terminal and smiles as he extends his hand. We make solid eye contact, but I decline to shake his hand. Instead I enter the terminal and head for the U.S. Airways counter. I have travel arrangements to make.









CHAPTER TWELVE

BACK IN MAINE I figure it's my job to tell people as much as I can about Jack and as little as possible about Tom. By communicator I contact Jerry Fielding, the head of the archeology department, and, mincing no words, tell him Jack is dead. I am surprised at how casually he takes the news. It doesn’t seem to faze him. If anything he seems to regard Jack’s demise as a short-term inconvenience, but long-term blessing. Seems Jack had been scheduled to bring a dozen graduate students to Pinkal during summer break. Fielding sighs and says he supposes he will have to contact them as soon as possible to cancel the trip. Such a bother.

I know Jack hasn’t been the university’s favorite professor, but Fielding’s lack of concern is startling. At least for a time, Jack’s discovery of Pinkal  brought the university to the archaeological forefront. Certainly this must have translated into millions, or at least hundreds of thousands, of dollars. Maybe it was just academic detachment, unemotional intellectualism. Still Fielding could have pretended to care, at least a little bit.

Jack’s ex-wife Diane reacts differently. Initially she expresses disbelief. “Kill Jack? Who in the world would bother to kill Jack? Even I wouldn’t kill the jerk.” I wonder if this was the disbelief that is supposed to accompany shockingly bad news. I assume she was searching for an appropriate way to react. She does have the decency not to ask if he has left a will.

I have no idea how to call Lilly. Jack had told me that she had affiliated with a new sorority housed along with most of the others on Stillwater Avenue. I don’t know its name. I don't think Jack ever mentioned it. However, Jack told me the house would be easy to find. Unlike all the other Greek houses, it is painted not white with black shutters, but black with white shutters. I am Intrigued by the notion of a non-conformist sorority, Since Jack has alienated most of his previous friends, Lilly seems to be both a lover and a best friend. I decide to call on her in person.

Driving up there, I wonder about Lilly’s new sorority. Are sororities and fraternities commonly being hatched anew? Whatever happened to time-honored tradition? It takes time to develop those secret handshakes and compose those rowdy drinking songs. Surely they aren't running out of Greek names. It seemed weird to be forming fresh combinations of Taw, Alpha, Omega, or whatever.

As Jack had promised, the black house with white shutters is easy enough to find. A black house in a sea of white. A sign over the stately front door reads simply Xibalba, which I assume is Greek for something or other. I clank the door’s bright brass knocker and after a moment am greeted by an elderly woman dressed entirely in black except for some white trim on her apron. She is a bit over-weight, and has gray hair brought back into a bun. The lens in her glasses are quite thick. Her black attire makes me wonder if she's in mourning. Has she heard about Jack? Would the entire faculty pay him this honor? Who the hell is this lady?

She leads me to a formal sitting room and asks if I would like coffee or perhaps tea. I opt for tea. She brings me a cup of hot water, a tea bag, and a platter of fresh-from-the-oven chocolate chip cookies. I hesitate to sit in one of the fragile-looking Queen Ann chairs, fearful that a collapse under my considerable weight would destroy a pricey antique. The chairs made me think of Marlina. Without her coaching, I would never have known what a Queen Ann chair was. When she told me about them, I couldn't have cared less. I hope I wasn't rude to her. My attitude was a chair is a chair, and we spend too much time sitting around anyway. Now I wish she were here to tell me more about them. Who was Queen Ann, anyway?

Playing it safe, I head for the more accommodating brown leather couch. As I sink deep down into the soft cushion, preventing the tea from splattering requires some adroit balancing, but I pull it off. I situate the saucer on my knee and begin nibbling on  a cookie.  I have all but finished the tea and am working on my fourth cookie when a young lady I know has to be Lilly enters the room. She is dressed casual as can be, sweat pants and over-sized university sweatshirt. I can't help but wonder what she's wearing underneath such baggy garb. Her long, auburn hair stretches halfway down her lanky back. She extends a slender hand, and I note that the black polish on her exceptionally well-kept nails absolutely gleams. I realize that standing up would be the polite thing to do, but the thought of struggling up from that soft cushion while balancing a tea cup on its saucer is just too daunting. Leaning forward, I  take her hand in mine, and as we shake I am impressed by its strength. As she withdraws her hand, I swear she tries to scratch me.

She sits down in one of the Queen Ann chairs, and I am relieved to see it seems quite sturdy. Her large, brown eyes never leave mine. She seems overtly competitive. I sense she is assessing me, looking for an opening, determining how to gain an advantage. I am not sure why, but I feel compelled to play it as cool as possible. Perhaps my compliance can offset her competitiveness.  “Interesting tea,” I say, raising my cup just a bit. It is smooth, with a light sweetness I recognize as ginseng.

“It’s Ginseng Oolong,” she notes. “It’s supposed to make you bright and alert.”

I better be, I say to myself. I sip the last of it and slowly place the empty cup and saucer on the floor. Okay, I have been cool, but now it's time to get on with things. Several thoughts crowd my mind as I search for the best way to begin.

She saves me the trouble. “It’s about Jack, isn’t it?” she says. I feel rooted to the spot as her sky-blue eyes bore into mine. Those eyes: Weren’t they brown a moment ago? I feel disoriented and more than just a bit foolish. I am not there to be astonished by a fetching young lady’s eyes. Of course, it's about Jack. What else could bring me here? “Where is Jack?” she asks. “I haven’t seen him in quite some time.”

I realize her query calls for a reply. “I am here about Jack,” I offer. “I am sorry I have to be the one to tell you this, but Jack is dead. Somebody killed him in Pinkal.”

I had expected denial followed by grief. Isn’t that the path people take when hearing about the death of a loved one? Guess not this time. Lilly stays dry-eyed and goes directly to blame dispensing. Her gaze is rock hard when she says,  “It’s those damn natives. They resented his discovery of Pinkal.”

“Why would that be?” I ask.

 “In some ways, Mayans aren’t so much different from us. Religion divides their culture into two camps. We might regard these groups as fundamentalists and secularists. The fundamentalists are older and far fewer, but more devout. They believed Pinkal existed, but didn’t know where, and that was fine with them. They wanted it to remain hidden. For mankind, especially Caucasian mankind, to intrude upon it was a sacrilege. To them, Pinkal was a holy city inhabited only by the gods. They wanted it left that way.”

“Would they have murdered Jack?”

“Of course. There's no other explanation. The young secularists didn’t really give a damn. They were into getting high, getting laid, and getting rich, although they aren’t particularly good at the last two things. They don’t mind incursions from the North. Not if the incursors are laden with greenbacks. They’ll even help gringos out if they think there’s a buck to be made. They tended to believe Pinkal didn’t exist, that it was just part of their creation myth, but when Jack fund it, they tended to shrug it off. All things considered, I’ve found them to be quite stupid.”

I am astonished. Sherlock Holmes would have taken longer to solve this crime. And what's this about stupid? I expected somebody training to be an archaeologist to show more respect for another culture. Weren’t all cultures essentially equal? There were exceptions, of course. We were constantly hearing about Muslim atrocities, beheadings for trivial offenses, rampant devaluing of women. There were tales of women being raped, then stoned to death for disgracing the family, and other women being executed for advocating education for females. Some cultural gaps are simply too wide to be transcended. However, we were assured that Goggle’s drone forces were doing a good job dealing with this problem.

Lilly must have sensed my misgivings. “Jack was studying the reasons for the Mayan Civilization’s collapse,” she notes. “They exercised incredibly poor judgment. They exhausted their timber supply, and weren't prepared to cope with extended drought. One has to conclude they just weren’t that smart.”

I consider pointing out that they came up with calendars better than ours, but decide to hold back. Maybe if they had been smarter, they would have focused on other things.

For some reason, Lilly suddenly looks stressed. She gets up and begins pacing to the window, looking out, and coming back, her movements quick and jerky. She keeps moving her hand to her mouth, biting a knuckle before moving it away. She opens a door on the far wall. Managing with some difficulty to extract myself from the couch, I follow her into a kitchen. On the wall to our left is a wide shelf holding several cookbooks, a microwave, a Mr. Coffee machine, a toaster, and a blender. A new-looking refrigerator and stove, both over-sized and made of burnished stainless steel, share counter space along the opposing wall. There are cupboards on the upper portions of both walls. She grabs a teakettle, filling it half-full of water from the sink. After about a minute on a hot gas burner, I can hear the water bubbling away.

"A potion for every notion," she says. "That's our motto."  She fills two large tea balls with a dark gray substance. Then she pours steaming water into two cups and dunks the balls. "These should steep for three minutes."

While we wait, Lilly is still the picture of impatience. She seems to forget about the tea. She opens a cupboard door and withdraws a small leather pouch. Reaching into it, she brings out a pinch of reddish, pepper-like material. "Five hundred dollars a gram," she says. "Not your common, everyday spice."

"What is it?"

“Essence of dried waterlily, procured domestically. And not just any waterlily. It’s a rare pink waterlily from Ames Pond in Stonington. It has properties you just can't find in other waterlilies. Structurally it's closely related to a special variety of Mayan extract that can also be traced back to back to ancient Egypt. Word is Cleopatra got her hands on some and changed history. Legend has it she used a similar smoke to seduce Mark Anthony."

Pretty much all I know about Cleopatra is Elizabeth Taylor played her in an ancient movie spectacular and, according to Tom,  she used an asp, a poisonous Egyptian serpent and symbol of divine royalty. to end it all. I do know a bit about Ames Pond. I had written about it in "Mystical, Magical Maine." A local had told me its pink waterlilies are of a type found nowhere else. The place is isolated and it did impress me. I felt confident referring to it as magical. Its quietness was absolute, and I felt a strong calming effect. I am intrigued by Lilly's reference to it, and for the first time I feel like we've connected. I wonder if Clint knows about its possibly unique pink blossoms.

"I've been to Ames Pond," I say. "It's a lovely place.'

Lilly has packed some of her reddish roughage into a bong and lit it. The room has filled with an amazing amount of smoke. She moves closer to me, and I am tempted to reach out and touch her.  "I want you to try some," she says.  Some what? I wonder.

I have done my fair share of drugs, more than my fair share really, but I have made it a rule to know what I am ingesting, snorting, or inhaling. Or at least have a pretty good idea. It's not often that I feel cautious, but I am feeling it now. What, really, is that stuff?

From out of nowhere, a female voice answers my question. "I love the smell of Eukodal in the morning," it coos. I glance toward the door and behold a stunning blond. Her head nearly reaches the top of the door frame.

Lilly smiles. "Ava, you're just in time to meet Douglas Doberman, the man responsible for Jack's troublesome website. I am afraid he won't be needing it anymore seeing as how he's extremely dead. Jack, meet Ava, our newest pledge."

Ava smiles, but makes no move to shake hands. She accesses me for a moment before shrugging her broad shoulders, turning on her heel, and disappearing down the hallway."

"She's a little bashful," Lilly says.

I know a lie when I hear one. I also know flippancy when I hear it, and I find Lilly's inappropriate. I still don't know what she's smoking. Eukodal could well be another word for dried, pink waterlily.

Lilly is too busy playing pharmacist to notice my hesitancy. "Some time you'll have to come by for ayahuasca," she says. "A friend of mind in the chemistry department has figured out how to quadruple the strength of its DMT. Trust me, this stuff will send you into another realm. Really and truly, I shit you not, a never-before-seen spiritual and rather garishly colored realm. I promise that in twenty minutes you'll learn more about the human spirit than you've gleamed in your entire previous lifetime, even if you've religiously gone to church each and every Sunday. Quite likely more than you would ever want to know. I would give you some now, but it's too nice a day to deal with copious barf and never-ending diarrhea."

“Sounds yummy,” I say, “but something tells me this would be a good day to keep my wits about me.”

She seems to be considering this as she takes another drag on the bong. Then she shakes her head. ”I still want you to have some,” she says. “Here. Take this. Now.” She thrusts the pipe into my suddenly outstretched hand. “It’ll make you feel ever so much better.”

For a moment, I consider resisting. I already feel just dandy, having absorbed enough of her smoke to saturate my lung cells.  Who does this bitch think she is? I had said "no." and, as so many women are fond of reiterating, no means no. I may have begun so shake my head when I sense my attitude shifting. It's the strangest feeling. I slide from indignantly grumpy to pleasantly supportive. The latter mode is ever so much better.  Lilly is right. She knows what's best. My friend Lilly will never steer me wrong.







CHAPTER THIRTEEN


IT'S  MORNING, and I am in my bed. I don't remember getting here and figure I am lucky to have made it in one piece. I am a bit unhappy about waking up since I was in the middle of a dream about penetrating Lilly with various body parts. My communicator ring is emitting an unfamiliar buzz. Grumpily, I tap its stone. It turns out to be Jerry Fielding from the university. Fielding  tells me that when they were cleaning out Jack’s office they found a file folder on which there was attached a note stating that it should be delivered to me.

I am quite sure I know what it is. Jack kept files of materials he wanted me to post on his website. It had been several weeks since he had turned one over to me, and I imagine he might have added quite a lot of material.  Now with his death it all seems quite irrelevant. I almost tell Fields to trash it. I haven’t taken Jack’s site down yet, but assume I will do so soon.

Then I have second thoughts. I have at times wondered if Jack’s biography might be of some commercial interest. Without too much exaggeration, I could  depict him as an intrepid explorer, slashing his way through dense forests to come upon forgotten cities. Maybe with a little elaboration I could write a semi-factual best seller. The university would hate me for it, but who cares? I already have a shit-load of material. Maybe I should collect as much additional Jack-related stuff as possible.

Deep down I know I'll probably never write this book. I am much better at coming up with ideas for projects than I am at following through with them. Another problem is I never found Jack all that interesting. I doubt if there's a big potential readership for his life story, even if I make him sound like a cross between Indiana Jones and Tarzan of the Apes. Erich Von Daniken and his "Chariots of the Gods" had their day, but I suspect people have gone on to other things.

 If I wrote the book, it would be in the interests of making a few bucks. In part it could be an expose of academia, a skewering of the establishment, and not an effort to pay overly humble homage to Jack's research. The book is one of a couple of dozen ideas I have for future endeavors, and I may never get to any of them.  I never quite give up on any of them and have even been accused of hoarding them. I have a bad habit of supposing that at some future date I will become much more diligent than I have been thus far.

I could describe any number of these endeavors, but one I find interesting is The Big Book of Boobs. I have written Chapter One, but have gotten no further.  It was to have been the definitive book about teats (or should that be tits?), that is, human female breasts. It seems that nearly every red-blooded American male is obsessed with boobs, and some of them read books.If even a small portion of these guys bought my book, I could make a fortune.

Maybe if I were a logical person I would spend this day working on that book. But the fact of the matter is, I have made no plans for today.  Driving up to the university to get a folder that could conceivably be useful some day seems like an okay thing to do. Of course, so long as I am up there I might as well drop in on Lilly. I tell Fielding I will be there before lunch.

 I have given myself plenty of time to get to Orono, and I decide to make a stop  in Ellsworth. Louis Agassiz's famous plot of scratched granite on Oak Street is on the say, and I decide to pay it a visit. In the mid-1800s, Agassiz was a popular professor at Harvard and regarded as one of America's brainiest men. The granite plot, no more than twenty feet to a side, has scratches running north to south. Viewing these, Agassiz realized they must have been made by an ice-age glacier. From this he was able to deduce that Noah's flood was no more than a fanciful myth. His work here is considered a major scientific milestone.

As I see it, it is a good example of how a man can be brilliant and stupid at the same time. For all his intellectuality, Agassiz had some crackpot ideas. He contended that black and white Americans inhabited separate "zoological Provinces." In his highly celebrated mind, they were barely the same species, and only whites were descended from Adam and Eve. He had a running battle against Darwinism; Agassiz, a great collector of fossils and specimens, claimed that extinct creatures resembling modern ones were not their ancestors, but, rather, the results of previous rounds of divine creation.

It occurred to be that Clint might find both Agassiz and his granite plot fascinating, maybe even magical. The site is easy enough to get to. It runs right into the sidewalk. I inspect the scratchings for perhaps ten minutes, feel a bit of awe knowing that intellectual history was made on this very spot, but find no sign of a portal.

By eleven-forty I am in Fielding's office on the third floor of the aging administration building. The bare bones of the place reflect Goggle’s latest cut in funding higher education. There is an old wooden desk and a filing cabinet. An ancient p.c., more of an archaeological artifact than a functioning tool, sits on a separate table. Fielding is seated at the desk, and he nods me over to the only other available chair. It's a folding chair made of steel with an indentation for my butt, but no cushion. On the desk is the file folder with a bright read label, which I recognize as Jack’s.

Fielding spends a moment pretending to study a sheet of paper before wadding it up and tossing it towards his wastebasket. It falls short, landing on the floor beside three other similar wads. "You'll have excuse the humbleness of my abode," he says. "Baked good sales have taken us just so far."

I look at Fielding closely. His shaggy gray hair is turning white, and his eyes are as sad as his words are bitter. He has the defeated look of a man who has been dealt a hopelessly lousy hand from the Libertarian shuffle.

If anything he looks even more forlorn when words come out of his mouth. “They’re planning a memorial service for Jack,” he says. “I expect most everybody in the department will feel obliged to show up. I guess as his close associate you’re invited.”

I shiver. This has to be the chilliest invitation I have ever received. “Where and what time?” I ask.

"Jack declined to list a religious preference, so it’ll be held in Belmont Auditorium. Tomorrow night, eight o’clock. Coat and tie are optional. Refreshments will consist of cookies and lemonaide.”

"Chocolate chip?"

"Possibly. But don't count on it."

“Will Lilly be there?”

“As a student, she can attend. Of course, it’s possible we failed to inform her about said service.”

I wonder what demon possessed me to even ask. If tenure kept Jack on board, tuition-paying parents probably account for Lilly's continued presence. Feeling quite glum, I reach for the folder. “So I guess this will be the last of Jack’s material.”

“I certainly hope so. I went online this morning and noticed his website lingers on. I assume you’ll be taking it down soon.”

I don't reply.

“The site has caused the university considerable embarrassment.”

I still don't reply. This was becoming an experiment in elementary psychology. How long will it take before the man gets royally pissed off? In no time at all, my experimental subject begins escalating his contentiousness. “The site’s style was perhaps more appropriate for pornography than academia,” he suggests.

I smile. Is this any way to talk to a professional webmaster? One that has created some very beautiful porno sites? And am I to assume that Fielding includes porn as an area of expertise? Several framed credentials occupy one wall. Does one of these certify that Fielding is a doctor of scabrousity? I stare at the documents, but can't make out the fine print."

“Jack had a very bad habit of shooting from the hip," Fielding continues. "Instead of submitting papers to appropriate journals, he had you post unedited versions online for anybody to see.”

I sigh. Jack had told me what had happened when he acquired the scarab beetle medallion. He had done what he was expected to do. He prepared a paper contending that Mayans associated with ancient Egyptians in the Early Dynastic Period, as far back as 3100 B.C. After submitting the paper to a highly respected professional journal, it went under intensive peer review. A year later officially it was still under peer review as it was the following year. After two-and-half years, Jack had me post a copy on his website. That's when the shit hit the fan.

"It flew in the face of way too much accepted dogma," Jack had said. "It kicked too many old and contented anthropologists in their academic nuts."

This was when Jack had told me he wanted a hard-hitting website. I obliged, and it was the jazzy website that drew the attention of Anthropology Today. The magazine, which has evenly divided professional, student, and lay readership, welcomed a bit of semi-sensationalism. It needed what it called relevancy to build circulation in hopes of attracting a bit more advertising. Thus it was that two years ago it featured Jack on the cover of the August edition.

To his friends Jack tried to make light of it all. "They wanted me to pose naked for a centerfold, but my price was too high," he often joked. Bad as this joke was, he was about to lose his ability to joke at all. His mock modesty went only so far. Deep down, he was thrilled getting the attention. Most archaeologists spend a lifetime in obscurity shifting through tons of dirt for tiny shreds of pottery. The sudden fame may have been narrowly focused, but for Jack it was a new and breath-taking experience. He liked the way it made him feel. From then on it seemed as though no theory was too outlandish for him to air in public. Case in point: Without consulting anybody else and with little supporting evidence, he urged me to post his conviction that pyramids are portals to other dimensions.

In this instance, I had suggested that Jack hold off, the first and last time I cautioned restraint.  I didn't need a PhD to see that Jack had scant supporting data. It was a conviction Jack seemed to have gleamed from thin air. "Cowards win no air medals," he had said, insisting that I proceed as instructed. I didn't, and I expected Jack to find himself another webmaster. Jack said that Clint had insinuated that pyramids served this function, and he was close to being able to demonstrate it. I risked my job by insisted that he hold off until that time came.

Fielding, who I sense is normally rather restrained, rambles on. “Before we knew it, Jack was contending the pyramids were built with the assistance of technologically advanced aliens who had mastered anti-gravity. He also contended the Sphinx is nearly a million years old.”

I remember Jack's take on the Sphinx. Vertical erosion marks hearken back to a time when Egypt got lots of rain. Egypt hasn't been a tropical paradise for hundreds of thousands of years. The pyramids show no such erosion and are assumed to be of much more recent construction.

Fielding hasn't stopped talking. "Jack was attracted to crackpot theories like fleas to an old hound dog. He scratched at them a lot, but they just wouldn't go away."

I clearly recall the day that Jack had me post on his website that it was simply impossible for Early Egyptians or anybody else on earth, including us, to have built the pyramids. Jack minced no words. "Flat out impossible" was his assessment. Their construction, he insisted, involved a degree of precision we would have a hard time duplicating today. The Great Pyramid of Giza is situated precisely halfway between the equator and the north pole, and it points to true north within a tiny fraction of a degree. Four thousand years ago, instruments capable of such precision simply didn't exist.

"Jack never seemed to get tired of telling me about pyramids," I say. "Built some 4,500 years ago, the Egyptian pyramids are the only wonders of the ancient world still extant. They have withstood earthquakes that leveled everything else around them. The Pyramid at Giza has more than two-and-a-half million irregularly shaped blocks, many of which weigh more than automobiles. They fit snugly together, requiring no mortar."

"My God!"Fielding whacks his desktop with a closed fist. "Jack wanted us to take seriously the  notion that the Anunaki kick started the human race."

"How do you suppose those pesky Sumarians knew there are nine planets?"

"I don't know," Fielding sputtered.  "Nobody knows. But I do know for damn sure it wasn't because starmen told them about them."

"Jack had a favorite expression," I reply. "Never in doubt, often wrong."

"I watched Fielding's face turn red. "You may be qualified to build websites,"he says, "but your scientific credentials are zilch. I shouldn't be discussing these matters with you."

He has a point.

"Archeology is a discipline," he adds. "This implies we're obliged to exercise some."

Touche.

Fielding is beginning to annoy me, and I decide to challenge him. “Do you have a good explanation for how those millions of mega-stones were placed with absolute precision? What about those tire tracks dating back three million years?” I half-hope the man will profer some explanations, but I know he won't. I have never cared for Jack’s insistency on super-clever space guys. Jack could annoy me, but not nearly so much as this jerk. “Maybe I should leave the site up for awhile, out of respect for Jack. A matter of simple decency."

Fielding isn't amused. “It can’t come down soon enough as far as the university is concerned. I guess you realize Jack has been a source of constant embarrassment.”

“I suppose he did draw more than his fair share of attention.”

“The wrong kind of attention, for the most part.”

For some reason, I feel argumentative. “To be fair, you’ve gotta concede he did discover Pinkal. You’ve gotta give him that...”

“There is an old saying that expresses our take on this. Even a blind pig finds an occasional acorn.”

For a moment or so, I wonder if pigs care if they find acorns. “I would think that Pinkal was a pretty big nut.”

“It's true, Jack’s discovery has been of great benefit to the university. It brought in a sizable fortune in research grants. Unfortunately, he had to ruin things by insisting that Quetzalcoatl, a mythological being, showed him the way and that the workmanship that went into building the place could only have come from extraterrestrials.”

“I guess this required the suspension of considerable disbelief.”

“Don't get the wrong idea. We're open to new ideas. We realize that the jury is out on when Old World adventurers first came to the Americas. There were, of course, the Vikings, but also possibly the Chinese, the Polynesians, and even the Irish. But Jack couldn’t leave it at that. He had to dredge up ancient astronauts, and not just any ancient astronauts, but ancient astronauts with powers bordering on the magical. In his headlong plunge into the inconceivable, he made Von Däniken look unimaginative. You know what really took the cake? It was Jack's insistence that human civilizations flourished three or four million years ago. He contended they were wiped out when huge comet fragments struck the two-mile-thick North American icecap. He made the university the laughing stock of the archaeological world.”

I am no expert, but I know that Fielding's "new ideas" have been around for many decades. “Have you ever considered the possibility, even for a moment, that the archaeological world could be wrong? Maybe Jack was right? What about pre-Columbian visits by Templar Knights? What about the Holy Grail or the Ark of the Covenant possibly being hidden somewhere in Nova Scotia or even here in Maine? What about human remains found in coal mines hundreds of feet deep and known to go back millions of years?”

“I know insane blather when I hear it. Jack’s craziness fed on itself. He went from ancient astronauts to guided tours of other universes. He wanted us to believe that with Quetzalcoatl’s help he could skip from one dimension to another. I think it’s possible you encouraged him with that bloody Website. Tell me something, man to man, did you ever egg him on?"

“Jack had his own ideas, and didn’t need prompting from me. I did, I’ll admit, help him present these ideas in a manner that could be a bit startling.”

Fielding gives me a dirty look. “I did a quick perusal of Jack’s latest work. Seems he has come up with a novel theory on the cause of the Mayan civilization’s collapse. He thinks they engaged in too much partying. According to Jack, they developed a huge appetite for hallucinogenics. I swear Jack wanted to be the next Tim Leary. Of course, Harvard fired Leary. Washed its hands of the whole matter. I am afraid we're stuck with the memory of Jack forever.”

“Obviously Jack was anything but popular around here. Seems he wasn’t liked at all. But tell me, did anybody dislike him enough to kill him?”

Fielding looks puzzled. “Get serious,” he says. “I've been getting calls all morning long. As I understand it, somebody gutted him. Sliced him open and removed organs. Around here if we don’t like a fellow we give him a windowless office or don’t invite him to faculty teas. Evisceration is not our style.”

What a world, I reflect. No invites to memorial services, shunned by faculty teas. This place of so-called higher learning was a jungle of not-so-passive aggression. A good gutting might be kinder. Plenty of fodder for that book I'll probably never write.

“I can understand the general distaste for him,” I note. “But this goes deeper than that. Is there somebody who really hated his guts?"

Fielding hesitates. He started to shake his head, then stopped. “Well, there’s always Brian Grant, of course”

“Who’s Brian Grant?”

“Brian Grant is, or I should say was, a grad student, one of the chosen few Jack brought to Pinkal. It was Brian who unearthed the scarab beetle linking Mayans with Egyptians. He dutifully turned it over to Jack, a little oblivious to its potential  significance. There is a picture of him on your website. He is the lanky, blond-haired fellow on the far left of the line of students standing before the temple ruins in Pinkal.”

I picture that photo in my mind's eye. Brian was shirtless and and deeply tanned, sporting well-defined muscles. He looked like a highly energetic fellow, the kind of guy who attracts women like flies. “So now he's rich and famous?” I suggest.

“In your dreams. Or his. When the article in Anthropology Today came out, Brian’s contribution wasn’t mentioned. Not a single word, no hint that Jack was elsewhere when the medallion was found. Jack swore that he told the reporter about Brian, but, if he did, it never made it into the article.”

“So was that the end of that?”

“Not quite. Jack contacted the magazine about its omission. In the next issue, on page 167, there was a small addendum. The magazine had covered its butt legally, but in archaeological circles, it went largely unnoticed. Nobody but his mother knows who Brian is.”

“Where is he staying?”

“I have no idea. He dropped out of school at the end of the term.”

We sit for a few moments in abject silence. What  more is there to say? I am pretty sure that while Fielding is happy to see Jack go, almost certainly he had no hand in his demise. I know he'll be happy to see me go, so I do.




CHAPTER FOURTEEN

AS I LEAVE Fielding's office I feel like I have lots to do, but no idea where to begin. I guess I should be looking for Clint, but where? I suppose I should be doing something about Tom’s captivity, but what? No doubt I should be tracking down Brian, but how? What I really want to do was go see if Lilly is home. Part of me knows this is a really bad idea, but it is what I really want to do. So that's what I do.

Margaret, still dressed entirely in black, doesn’t seem at all surprised to see me. Extending no offer of tea and cookies, she doesn’t seem particularly pleased either. Instead of leading me to the sitting room, she directs me to the stairs. “Second door on the left,” she says. I haven’t said a word and restrict my thanks to a curt nod.

The door is open a crack, and I knock lightly to prevent it from opening further. “Come on in,” Lilly’s sing-song invitation coos. “I knew you’d be back.” It is a good-sized room with a double bed in one corner. There is a small refrigerator and a stereo system with a setup that might have baffled a tech genius. On one wall is a flat 54-inch TV screen. The room brings to mind my old dorm room only because it is so different.

Lilly is perched on her bed, her legs crossed in what I had been told was the Lotus position. Her arms are crossed just below her breasts which are encased in a sports bra.  The whole package would have fit nicely in one of those old-fashioned wooden barrels.

"I was in the neighborhood," I say. "Thought I would just pop in."

"And what brought you to our unneighborly neighborhood?"

"Jerry Fielding summoned me to pick up a folder Jack left for me."

"And how is dear 'ol Jerry. Nasty as ever I would suppose."

"He doesn't have much good to say about Jack."

"I wouldn't expect him to. Jack threatened him."

"How so?"

"Fielding established his prominence by tracing patterns of Asian infusion across the Bering Straits  into North America. He was pretty much the leading authority on how,  where, and when, supposedly, this country became populated."

"And then?"

"Jack came along maintaining that folks were here thousands of years before Fielding had said they were. Jack was busily undoing everything Fielding had spent his entire life doing. Fielding, according to Jack, had been chasing a lie. When the trustees weren't contemplating canning Jack, they were considering making him head of the department."

"I guess that would explain Fielding's animosity."

"Obviously it would."

"Did you know they're holding a memorial service for Jack? "

"First I've heard of that."

"Tomorrow night, eight p.m., Belmont Hall, formal dress optional."

"Maybe I'll show up in my underwear."

That being done, I decide it's time to let Lilly know that my main purpose for being there has nothing to do with academic scuttlebutt.  “Whatever concoction we sipped  yesterday made me feel quite good,” I say. "I was wondering if I might have a bit more.”

She doesn’t answer me right away. For at least thirty seconds she seems to be thinking things over. Finally she reaches a sort of decision. “Possibly,” she allows. ”But even cheap thrills aren’t free. You’ll have to earn it.”

Cheap thrills. Now there is a phrase I haven’t heard in a long, long time. It is the name of an early Janis Joplin album. When she cut it, she is  with Big Brother and the Holding Company. This was before she took up with Country Joe and the Fish. She went on to OD many years before Lilly was born. Had the term persisted in the vernacular or was Lilly trying to show me how archaic I am? What sort of game are we playing here? Why should I care?

Back to reality. No sense taking offense when none was necessary. “How might I earn a tote or two?”

“How might you do that... Hmmm, let me see. I am thirsty. I would like a Coke. Not a diet Coke, a classic one. There’s a convenience store in the next block. You passed it coming here. I want you to go there and steal me a Coke.”

“I’ll buy you one.”

“No, that will not do. I want you to steal one for me.”

“Why?”

“Oh, I don’t know. Maybe I just want to know how big a wimp you are."

“Stealing a Coke would prove I’m not a wimp?"

“No, not really, but the refusal to steal one might suggest you are one.”

“I know that if there were a legal age, you’d barely be there, but this all seems very immature to me.”

"What did you think when you first heard my name?"

"I don't know. Not much I guess."

"Most people think of the flower, which is associated with delicacy, purity,  and sweet-smelling innocence."

"I take it this isn't you."

"Hardly. My name, it's Biblical. I take it from Lillith, Adam's first wife. You probably think he had no huggy other than Eve, but that's wrong. God created Adam and Lillith together, from the same dust. They were in all ways equal. But then Adam, being a God damn man,  tried to take command. He instructed Lillith to lie beneath him. She went along for a time, but finally decided enough was enough. She left in a huff, and things haven't been the same since. She was one bad-ass bitch. So bad she isn't allowed in the proper Bible."

Lilly picks up a brush and, looking into a hand mirror, begins brushing her long hair. Methodically and slowly she makes every stroke count. “Trust me, there’s a method to my madness,” she insists. “Now be a good boy, and go steal me a Coke.”

As I trudge down the block towards the store, I have to wonder how Jack ended up with this bitch. Sure, she has long, soft auburn hair, perky breasts, and a round butt, but so, for the most part, did Dinah, although maybe hers was beginning to sag just a bit. Still, for a man who took pride in lining up priorities properly, his was a strange choice. He never showed any signs of regret.

I think about buying a soda and telling her I stole it. Why the hell not? Broke as I am, I am not a thief. I have fifty-six dollars in my wallet plus a dollar or so in change and can buy my own damn Coke. Besides it would be unendurably embarrassing to get caught pilfering a mere soda.

I am about halfway to the store when I remember I have a Bill Belichick-style hoodie in my car. I can picture old films of the legendary coach pacing the sidelines, his hands stuck in the pouch across the front of his hoodie. The previous January I tossed a hoodie, one with a Patriots logo, into the back seat of my car, and it has been there ever since. Since mid-March it hasn’t been chilly enough even at night to bother wearing it. But today there's a bit of a cold breeze, and I wouldn't look ridiculous wearing it.  If Belichick had been into filching sodas, his hoodies would have been the perfect accessories. I backtrack to my car and get my hoodie. The elderly lady in the convenience store doesn't seem to give it a second thought.

The coolers are in the back. There must be fifty brands of beer, although Goggle/Bud gets at least half the space. Goggle/Pabst and Goggle/Millers seem like afterthoughts. Other brands are represented by a bottle or two. I take my time, checking out every label. I glance to the front and see that the boss lady is busy cashing out a teenage girl. The girl is buying the latest issue of Goggle/Cosmopolitan which features an article on achieving orgasm through meditation. Although are no  legal age restrictions on buying alcohol or smokes, some store managers, especially older ones, set their own rules, and the good Christian lady is hemming and hawing over selling the magazine. With my back to the register, I slide a 16-ounce Coke into the pouch of my hoodie. I haven’t shoplifted since I snatched a Snickers when I was a 14-year-old lad. I recall the feeling of fear and elation and am surprised when this strange mix reappears.

At the register, I present a “party size” bag of chips. It is all I can do to resist the temptation to look down at the lump across my middle. I half expect the old lady to mount a challenge, but the encounter with the  last customer seems to have dulled her edge. It's possible she would like to frisk me, but is just too tired.  The chips are $6.49, and I hand her a ten. She brings it within a few inches of her face to identify it. Probably a lucky thing for me she is seriously near-sighted. “Keep the change,” I say, hoping to both hurry things along and absolve my conscience. Soon as she hands me a receipt, I hurry out the door.

Back at the sorority house, Lilly snatches from my grasp the bag containing the chips. She extracts the receipt and smiles when she sees that the chips were the lone entry. She twists the cap off the Coke and takes a deep swig. “Ahaaa,” she over-dramatizes. “Things do go better with a freshly pilfered Coke.” She holds the bottle out to me. “Want some?”  I shake my head. I don’t want to drink it, don’t want to discuss it, and don’t feel like dwelling on my petty crime. I did feel like casting an aspersion. “That thing contains at least twelve tablespoons of sugar,” I point out. “Don’t you worry about such things?”

“No, not really,” Lilly says as she pats her flat belly. “I have never had a cavity and my body fat has never exceeded fifteen percent. I am a good athlete and have practiced yoga since I was ten. Today I am a certified yoga instructor and also a black belt.”

There is no denying it; besides being formidable, she looks damn good. I feel silly for having admonished her for drinking a Coke.

She seems to feel I require further education. I have to believe she wants to rub it in. “As a leader, I have to set an example. Girls in our group have two requirements. They must become adept at yoga and accomplished at martial arts. There are no exceptions.”

“So you all stay in shape and are able to beat back unwanted admirers.”

“I guess that’s one way of looking at It.”

“You have another?”

“Well, yes. We’re more inclined to believe that Yoga allows us to absorb the wisdom of the ages, and martial arts let us kick the crap out of people we don’t like.”

“Are there many of these?”

“More than you might suppose.”

I have no idea where this conversation is heading, but am pretty sure I don’t want to go there. “This is all very interesting,” I suggest, “but actually I came here for a smoke.”

She pauses for a moment, feigning a surprised, but deeply disappointed look. She almost pretends to pout. “I thought it was my company you craved,” she says. Then she smiles, opens a bureau drawer, and extracts a pipe and a plastic bag filled with a dried green leafy material. She fills the pipe’s bowl with it and brings a lit match to it. She takes a deep drag and holds the smoke in her lungs before handing me the pipe.

"You know," she says, "this smoke provides a special bonus. Some some, and for two or three days, your farts won't smell."

I wonder if she's kidding while I draw in at least as much smoke as she had and hold it longer. It feels warm and soft, not harsh at all. I feel like I am encased in a cocoon of contentment. I  feel safe and protected, at home in my mother’s womb. I sensed I could spend the rest of my days exploring my cosmic spiritual essence. Nothing material matters. Life is phenomenally rich and exciting. I could happily stay with Lilly forever.

She draws close to me and I can smell a sweet fragrance. I want to keep her breasts pressing against my chest for as long as possible. God I want to fuck her here and now. “I have been known to love men almost as much as I do women," she whispers. " You’ve gotta go now, but I want you to come back Wednesday night for yoga.” She kisses my cheek sweetly. I smile and nod and try to ignore my throbbing loins. “Sounds everlastingly lovely,” I murmur.

I think we're done, but then she asks,  “Have you had a chance to inspect Jack’s file folder?” I shake my head. “I could help you. I believe some of the material might require interpretation. I know quite a bit about Jack’s work.”

“I'll bet you could be a big help," I gush.

“I would appreciate being able to go through it with you,” she purrs. “I believe it contains personal information, private conversations between Jack and myself.”

My first impulse is to deny her access. But then I feel this melt away. I discover I want to share things with Lilly. More than anything else, I want to make her happy. Impulsively, I begin unbuttoning her shirt, expecting that at any moment she will restrain my hand. She doesn't, and soon we are naked beneath her covers. The sex was as good as I had imagined it would be.


















CHAPTER FIFTEEN

I have always managed to keep my emotional life simple. I know better than to look to others for happiness or fulfillment. I like people well enough, quite a few of them anyway, but I know they all can be unreliable. They all have personal agendas, and that is as it should be.  Marlina came as close as anybody I've known to practice total empathy, but this doesn't mean that there weren't times  when we didn't see eye-to-eye. I'll admit it's possible I was often in the wrong. Maybe it was always.

I guess if I believe in anything it's in the importance of acquiring useful knowledge and setting reachable goals. But how useful is the acquiring of knowledge? When I stop to think about how much there is to know, the sum total of potential human knowledge, the best-informed person is just a tad better informed than the most vacant know-nothing. It's like we're all engaged in a sprint for omniscience, and we've barely left the starting blocks.

Tom once told me that people are knowing more and more about less and less, and some time soon they'll know everything about nothing. Tom, by the way, knows more than anybody else I know.

Of course there are at least two ways of looking at this.  I've never forgotten the words of my father who told me that everybody I meet knows something I don't. I think this helped make me a good listener. As for goals, sometimes I achieve them, sometimes I don't, but never do they entail total reliance on somebody else. None of this wisdom has made me particularly successful.

It has, however, helped to make life simple. So it comes as a surprise when I realize that my emotional life has become complicated. I miss Marlina. I regard her as probably the best person I have ever known. I want her to be alive and to come back home, but if she has chosen to be elsewhere, I wish her the best. Really I do. From the bottom of my heart I want her to be happy.

On the other hand, my attraction towards Lilly is so forceful I feel helpless in its grasp. I can no more resist it than I can step off a cliff and ignore gravity. I have been advised to believe in a power greater than myself. Well, I do. I believe in Lilly.

And then there is, of course, Suzi. I can't imagine life without her. I want to keep her a part of me. I believe that in some sense of the word she loves me. I know she has done her level best to help me find Marlina, a selflessness that can only be love or something along those lines.

I have become an emotion glutton. I want what I want and am determined to get it, but I know I can't get what I want without hurting others. This and nothing else separates me from a two-year-old.

I feel ill-prepared to deal with emotional complications. Maybe everybody is. Maybe so many people keep themselves drugged to avoid having to deal with such complications. Maybe if there is a God, He gave us drugs for this very reason. How the hell would I know?

Conflict between the sexes is a built-in certainty. The health of the species depends on it. The most vigorous males must spread seed far and wide; females, throughout most of our history, have had to depend on males for shelter, nutrition, and protection.How can there not be conflict?

For a long time I used alcohol to smooth over emotional entanglements, and then I turned to writing. Unlike alcohol, which left me hung over, writing often left me feeling elated. Good writing, which with practice became for common, would do this.

Writers read. I had always known this, but the more I got into writing, the more I got into books. I began collecting books, and eventually I bought a barn full of them from an old guy in East Anson. Books enlightened me, but also burdened me. Finding places to store them became problematical. This eventually led to Peter and me going into the book business together.

It seemed like a wonderful thing when Goggle announced a project to put all books online. This was especially wonderful for the chipped, who could bring whole books onto their monitors by merely focusing on titles. Doing this cost them almost nothing. One percent. A book that formerly would have set them back $40 at a bookstore could be had for four cents. Was this a wonderful world or what?

Environmentalists, at least at first, were elated. No more clear-cutting. Millions of trees could remain vital til old age.

Of course, this didn't set well with old-time publishers. Sales fell to near nothing. Such venerable concerns as Doubleday, Scribners, HarperCollins, and Simon & Schuster hung on for a time, but eventually disappeared. The ninety-plus percent of chipped people barely noticed. They were getting their books online from Goggle. For those of us without chips, life became a bit more dreary, but not by much. For the most part we hadn't been able to afford new books anyway.

We did discover that many people missed the objects that were books.  They would come to me and offer to purchase hardcovers. In theory I, who owned thousands of books, was a rather wealthy many. In practice, with the supply of cash dwindling, many would-be buyers were unable to do business with me. Still I was often able to barter books for objects I would have otherwise have been denied.

After Marlina disappeared, and respectable women were reluctant to keep me company, I had on several occasions been able to exchange books for sex. Goggle regarded Googlegirls as professional company keepers, paid companions, so to speak, and had a low regard for unproductive, free lance prostitutes, so it denied them chips. Goggle was adamant in its insistence that independents hadn't been checked for diseases and were dangerous. These days, however, venereal diseases had been all but wiped out, and I felt reasonable comfortable patronizing unapologetic prostitutes.  I have made websites for several wayward women and gotten some gratification in return.  But increasingly I am able to swap books for sex.  I often wonder if I have beenssssssssss contributing to a highly literate class of whore.

Of late, I have been shying away with these arrangements. Sex with Suzi is ever so much better. In our affair, familiarity is breeding no signs of contempt. We genuinely enjoy each other's company. As Suzi and I get closer and closer, I find myself thinking less and less about Marlina. Sometimes I wonder if this should make me feel guilty.

It was Suzi who urged me to attend Jack's memorial service. He had been a good friend, she pointed out. I had been thinking about taking a pass. Jack's remains were in Guatemala and far beyond giving a damn how I spend my evening. I have memories of Jack-- some good, some not so good-- but I will have them forever without benefit of a service.

But Suzi is adamant. In her mind, not attending the service would constitute turning my back on a friend. Suzi had met Jack, but couldn't be considered a friend. It's my friendship that concerns her. So I put up token resistance, but finally agree to go. This is partly out of respect for Jack--there is a small residual amount left--partly to pacify Suzi, but mostly  to see if Lilly really does show up in her underwear. There is very little that girl could do that would surprise me.

Perfect timing! We take our seats in Belmont Auditorium at 7:55, five minutes before festivities are scheduled to begin. The place brings back memories. I know exactly how many people can be seated there. Five hundred and fifty. There are twenty-five rows, each containing twenty-two seats. I did the math years ago when I was a bored freshman forced to sit through a course in Western Civilization.

 The class was mandatory for all in-coming freshmen. Whoever designed the university curriculum found it imperative that students get a nodding acquaintance with notables such as Plato, Aristotle, Leonardo, Kepler, Marx, Einstein, FDR, JFK, Steve Jobs, Leo Kliner, Joe Morgan, and a host of others. And a nodding acquaintance it was, barely time of a "Hi, how're ya doing?"  The course covers nearly 4,000 years in ten weeks, which necessitates brief encounters and significant omissions.  I had been told that these days the final week focuses exclusively on Goggle CEO Howard Champ. Compromising Western Civilization is a small price to pay for continuous funding.

University administrators could have chosen a more modest venue for Jack's service. There are plenty of empty seats. I look around for Diane, but don't see her. The first three rows are filled, with some spill-over into the fourth. Attendees are mostly male,  comprising three groups of roughly equal size.  Dressed in expensive-looking suits are elderly men I take to be administrators and trustees. They command the front row. Behind them are men, and some women, who look to be in their thirties and forties. The men are wearing sport coats and dress pants, the women pant suits and flowery dresses. The rest of the occupied seats are taken up by roughly equal representations of male and female students decked out in jeans, shorts, t-shirts and sweat shirts. Men and women are dressed essentially the same, and I had to look twice at some of the long hairs to determine gender.

The next twenty rows are completely unclaimed. Then there's the back row. Suzi and I occupy the approximate middle. To our right down at the end  is a lone man of indeterminate age dressed entirely in white. White suit, white shirt, white sneakers. Except for the sneakers, he brings Mark Twain to mind. He sports a healthy tan, except for his left hand which is pale and white. His light-colored  hair is allowed to find its own way, and his face is obscured by wrap-around shades, not at all necessary in the dimly lit auditorium. The shades suggest an unmarktwainish quest for anonymity.

And to our left down at the other end are Lilly and Ava. To my quiet disappointment, Lilly is not dressed in her underwear, but in an ensemble not far removed from it. She is wearing, and filling out quite nicely, a one-piece article of clothing I suppose one might call a dress. The botom part, quite tight, crops off mid-way between the top of her knees and the bottom of her crotch. The top part features a swoooped neckline that displays at least half of her ample breasts, making it look like they're trying to get away. I would bet my bottom dollar she's wearing nothing underneath.

Ava's blond hair is cropped close. Her long legs are encased in tan slacks. Tucked into these and held in place by a wide leather belt with a buckle the size of a CD is a white, sleeveless blouse buttoned at the top. Around her neck is a blue, silk tie. Near the top of her bare right arm is a  tattoo, a blood red swastika the size of a silver dollar.

At precisely eight o'clock Jerry Fielding strides to the podium. A hush falls across the room as he adjusts the mic. "We are gathered here this evening to pay homage to a distinguished member of our academic community," he begins. "Jack Deegan died not sitting behind a desk, but deep in the jungles of Guatemala at an ancient city he had brought to light. He was a perfect combination of academic excellence and adventurous spirit."

Fielding goes on in a similar vein for another ten minutes. He probably would have kept on shoveling shit, but his audience is getting restless. Finally he asks if anybody wants to speak, and when he nobody does, he says that refreshments are being served in room 110.

I want to leave, but Suzi says she's hungry and wants to check out the eats. So we trudge down to room 110 where we find two eight-foot tables loaded with food. The organizers of this affair had no idea how many people would show up, and they obviously decided to error on the side of caution by providing edibles enough to feed a couple of hundred. I had to wonder how Fielding manges such splendor on his restricted budget.


Suzi and I haven't had supper, and I decide this is a good time to dig in. We fill our plates with crackers and cheese, shrimp cocktail, little pieces of white cake with chocolate frosting,  cookies which I take to be oatmeal (no chocolate chips in sight). These can be washed down with coffee either regular or decaf from appropriate urns or grape punch from a big crystal bowl.   Best of all, do doubt in deference to Jack's Central American connections, there are fixings for burritos. Standing by two attentive ladies  ready to resupply whatever runs low.

Nobody has paid us the slightest bit of attention, and Suzi and I gravitate towards a far corner. I am only a little surprised when we are joined by Lilly and Ava. I have no idea why, but Ava is giving Suzi the evil eye. Ava out-weighs Suzi by fifty pounds, but Suzi shows no signs of backing down.

Things seem a bit awkward so I try to loosen them up. "Nice dress," I say to Lilly. "New for this occasion?"

"No time to shop," she replies, "but I had this on hand. I save it for funerals and memorial services. The black is to show proper mourning, the cut to suggest that life must go on."

"Quite a statement for such a sparse swatch of fabric," I say. If anybody found me at all amusing, they kept it to themselves. Ava certainly does. "I am damn sure you're no fashion critic," she says.

I glance around and notice that the man who shared our row in the auditorium has separated himself from everybody else, and is fifteen or twenty feet away. He is holding a cup of coffee, and I can't tell if he's paying any attention to us.

Ava isn't done,  "Lilly tells me you're quite the little thief," she says.

Tricky situation here. Several responses flash through my mind, and I don't like any of them.

While I am frozen in indecision, Suzi actually moves a bit towards Ava. "Bullshit," she says. "Douglas is probably the most honest person I've ever known. He's no thief."

Ava laughs. "Your boyfriend is a lot sneakier than you'll ever know. He's crooked to the core."

I say nothing while Suzi gets angrier than I've ever seen her. I have never known Suzi to act impulsively, but maybe every threatened female has that potential.  "Bitch," she mutters as she empties half a cup of grape punch in Ava's face. "Learn to mind your manners." The liquid slides down Ava's astounded face, and suddenly her starched white shirt is part purple blotch.

From out of nowhere, Ava has a six-inch blade in her hand. "You're gonna regret that," she snarls. "I am going to see if your insides are as pretty as your outsides."

"No, Ava," Lilly cries, "Not here."

Ava pays no attention. I look at her eyes and can see that Suzi has sparked a psychotic rage divorced from  reason. I am going to try to snatch the blade, but hesitate, knowing my chances are slim to none.

Ava fakes a jab, nods left,  and moves towards Suzi.  She is holding the blade at hip level, moving it slowly back and forth. Suzi, transfixed by the glittering steel, is rooted to her spot. Ava didn't learn knife fighting watching TV; she's had expert instruction. "AHHHHH..." she screeches as she drops the blade. She shakes her hand violently. "Fucking thing is red hot!" she cries. "What the fuck...?"

Everything's a blur. I look for the mysterious man. He's gone. I look at the floor. The knife is gone. I grab Suzi's arm. It's time for us to be gone.







CHAPTER SIXTEEN

AS WE HEAD FOR HOME,  Suzi doesn't question me about Ava's charges. For that I am grateful. How could I explain my Coca Cola escapade? I realize I am grateful to Suzi for many things, not least of which is her provision of an emotionally satisfying sexual outlet. But right now I feel torn between pride and irritation. Ava instigated the confrontation, that's for sure, but Suzi took it from the verbal to the physical. Was that necessary? I have never known Suzi to behave aggressively and feel a tinge of satisfaction that she would do so in defense of me. But should I?

We act as though nothing at all out of the ordinary happened. Nothing to see here, folks.  Knifes are forever turning red hot before vanishing. We go to bed as though this evening was just like every other one, although on this particular one neither of us feels like making love. I fall asleep immediately. I believe Suzi does too.

The next morning, we're in bed sharing a cinnamon roll when Suzi says, "You're wondering why I took the initiative with that horrible woman."

"It did seem a bit out of character."

"She is going to attack you. I did it to protect you."

"Thanks, I guess, although Lilly didn't seem pleased with the fracas."

"I didn't know when Ava planned to attack or how. All I knew was that a face full of punch would distract her for the moment. I guess, hindsight being twenty-twenty, she wasn't going move on you last night. Certainly Lilly would have preferred less public exposure. But trust me, she is going to attack you."

"You know this because you're psychic?"

She sighs. "There is something about me you don't know. Something I've never told anybody. My deepest, darkest, most personal secret. Please don't broadcast this, but when I was a freshman in college, a gang of fraternity boys gang-raped me."

"You kept this to yourself?"

"It seemed like the best thing, the only thing, to do. It was at an out-of-control, all-night party. I was out of my mind drunk on vodka. I suspect I ingested other drugs as well. Everything was blurred. I was a bit shy, wanting to be accepted, so there I was dancing on a pool table, topless, almost bottomless. Just trying to make a good impression. One of the guys grabbed my ankle, and I went down laughing. Then I really went down, one guy after another. I remember a couple of the boys were holding back, but they were jeered on by their friends. All and all, eight or ten guys got a piece of me.  I was left stunned, bloody, smeared in semen, semi-conscious, crying, terrified I might get pregnant. But even then I knew I wanted to keep things quiet. I certainly didn't want it all to come out in a courtroom someplace."

"Clearly you were a victim."

"I was, but clearly not a blameless one. Maybe the guys were buzzed out of their brains as much as I was. Even then I knew they weren't evil, exactly, but temporarily berserk. I happen to know one of them went on to become a prominent civil rights attorney. Famous for his defense of women's rights. Do you suppose I inspired him? Our paths cross occasionally, but he pretends not to recognize me."

"Perhaps you should remind him with a hearty whack to his nuts."

"Perhaps so, but I've always gone along with the pretense of non-recognition. Anyway, the experience did two things to me. It traumatized me, for sure. I wanted nothing to do with men for the next year or so. But at the same time, it sharpened my defenses. I began having unmistakable glimpses into unpleasant futures. These insights--or should I call them outsights?-- are especially vivid when they involve pending danger. From that day on, I have known when people are potentially threatening. I've had this verified time and time again, recognizing a propensity for violence, not necessarily directed towards me, thank God, but violence slated to be inflicted on others. It's why I was eager to take up with you. I knew you would never hurt me. It's how I know you didn't harm Marlina."

"Too bad you can't reassure my stalker drone."

"Prior to my rape, I had had no psychic experiences. That awful night my senses took a quantum leap. It was like being born again. The new me is much better able to avoid danger. This would be good, but I can't control my psychic experiences, and all of them trigger horrible memories. You can't imagine a more reluctant psychic."

"No wonder you haven't set up shop with a crystal ball."

My smart ass remark draws a pained smile. "There is something else you should know," she says. "Jack was a threat to you. Maybe not a deadly threat, but a threat nevertheless. Sooner or later he was going to attack you."

I don't know how to respond to this. I had been unkind to Jack. Maybe I had a measure of retribution coming. Then it occurs to me that maybe Suzi is more than a tad paranoid. Who could blame her? For several minutes, we sit in silence. I hold her hand, squeezing it in what I hope is a comforting manner.

The tranquility passes abruptly when Suzi's communicator buzzes. She pulls away from me and takes her conversation into the bathroom. Then it's my turn to be summoned. I don't recognize the buzz and am tempted to ignore it, but I twist the stone and hear somebody say, "Grab your toothbrush, buddy. We're heading for Nova Scotia."

I am quite sure I recognize the voice. "Peter?"

"Who else would tolerate your company for an international jaunt?"

"Just you, I suppose. But why Nova Scotia?"

"That church you told me about? I bought it. We're going to check it out. We can only hope it's packed full of ancient first editions."

I think my mouth opened wide enough to use a two-by-four as a tongue depressor. I have known Peter for almost ten years, and during that period have never known him to be anything other than slow and deliberate. I was with him one day in Goodwill when he spent ten minutes debating with himself over whether or not to invest three dollars in a book, a first edition Stephen King with a remainder mark and small rips on the dust jacket. He is a shrewd businessman who seldom, if ever, makes even miner mistakes. Impetuousness isn't in his nature.

"You've bought a church? You of all people? If you're seeking redemption, there are plenty of nearby clerics eager to assist."

"I am looking for profit, not redemption. Trust me, I have good reasons for doing what I have done."

Half a dozen reasons flutter through my mind, none of which seem at all good. They are replaced with questions. "How did you do it so fast? Shouldn't it have taken longer than a couple of days, what with title searches and all?"

"Yesterday I called the bank, got hold of the right vice president, and made an offer of cash money he couldn't refuse. I told him it was good only through today. It didn't take that long. At seven-thirty this morning, I got a call accepting my offer. The deed is quit claim. He assures me there are no liens. Bankers can be quite zippy when they want to be."

When Suzi comes back into the bedroom, she has a look of deep concern. "That was my dad," she explains. "My mother has had a stroke. She's on life support and may not make it. I am going out to Montana to give him a hand, and I don't know when I'll be back."

My initial reaction is I'll miss her. My next reaction is fear my longing for Lilly will intensify. My final reaction is that maybe it's good she'll be gone for awhile. Give me a chance to straighten out my head, to come to terms with what I really don't know about Suzi. Funny how things work out.

As it turns out, our planes are leaving within 45 minutes of each other. We only need to bring one car to Bangor's International Airport's long-term parking lot. Peter has never appreciated the charms of my Honda, so we took his Tesla.  It's 12:45 p.m. when I kiss Suzi goodbye, and Peter and I board one of Cape Air's mid-size planes. The flight to Halifax Stanfield International Airport takes less than half an hour. No sooner does the plane reach its cruising altitude of 36,000 feet than I can see Nova Scotia's coast through the small window. Moments later we begin to descend. 





I have time to ask Peter a few questions, the main one being whatever possessed him to act so impulsively.

"If I am not mistaken, this property has considerable historical significance," he explains. "Betsy's mother lives just a dozen or so miles from that church, and  Betsy knows the area. She did a quick check with the town clerk and confirmed my suspicion that the land on which the church sits has been owned by Sinclairs."

"So?"

"So the Sinclair family traces its roots to Prince Henry Sinclair. In the thirteen hundreds, he held an important post in Scotland before disappearing from sight. There are those who  believe that he and a troop of Templar Knights came to Nova Scotia. This would have been  a hundred years before Columbus got his act together."

I yawn. It seems to me I have heard of any number of visitors possibly preceding Columbus, not counting the Indians who were there to greet him and the others. Chris, it appears, was something of a latecomer, no matter how proudly certain Italian-American societies honor the guy. My favorite early visitor, who may or may not have actually come here, is a sixth-century monk. According to legend, St. Brendan, an Irishman, devoted his life to sailing hither and yon, converting folks to Christianity. With a crew of 18 or 150 (or some number in between), he is said to have capped things off by coming here at age 93. On the way, according to one account, he encountered towering, floating crystal pillars, sheep the size of oxen, giants who pelted the ship with fireballs and smelled like rotten eggs, and talking birds singing psalms. Tom, of course, calls the story bullshit, but he admits that Scandinavian sagas do concede that the Irish beat the Vikings to North America.

I know Peter doesn't care about fanciful tales of Irish adventurers. He is focused on the Knights Templar, Prince Henry Sinclair, and his church. He is saying, "It isn't so much that Sinclair came to Nova Scotia, but what he probably brought with him."

"And that would be...?"

"Something of immense importance. But to fully appreciate this importance you need a little background. Let me tell you a bit about the Knights Templar. First off, besides being fierce warrior/rmonks, they were highly accomplished architects. They were the brains behind the great European cathedrals, bringing to Christianity know-how acquired from Muslims in the Mid-east. The church I bought has been there for as long as anybody can remember. It was there when the area was first surveyed a hundred-and-fifty years ago. But who could have built it? Supposedly, throughout the seventeen hundreds, there was nobody around but Indians, fishermen, and fur traders, none of whom took time or knew how to build stone churches."

"But somebody did."

"Templar knights, I believe. I was able to use Goggle/Earth to get a close look at the building, and it seems to be in remarkably good condition even though it's likely nobody has been in it for twenty-five or thirty years. The road leading to it is overgrown with bushes and even a few young hemlocks. The Templars were first-rate engineers. They were capable of building structures that could last unattended for a long time. There aren't many folks you can say this about."

"Unless you count Egyptians whose five-thousand-year-old pyramids still stand. When all is said and done, however, you're not at all sure Templars built your church."

"You're right; I can't be sure. But there is evidence supporting my case."

"Such as?"

"The church's design. The thing that caught my immediate attention was the building's peculiar shape. Its front portion is a plain rectangle while its backside is a semi-circle.  I zeroed in on the structure and noticed something highly intriguing. The semi-circular portion is darker and, I believe, more weathered than the rectangular part.  I believe the original church was wholly circular."

A stupid expression flashes into my mind. "Head for the roundhouse, Nelly; they can't capture you there." Admittedly I sometimes lack focus. Often I have wished I wasn't so easily distracted. Not wanting to appear completely off-track, I ask Peter, "Does this have something to do with circular logic?"

Peter looks a little annoyed. "It has to do with the propensity Knights Templar had for building round churches. In Europe there are numerous examples."

"Our cowboys built round corrals. You're not going to claim they were born-again Templars are you."

To his credit, Peter doesn't dignify this with a response.

In spite of myself, I am beginning to get intrigued. "You really think your church could be well over 500 years old?"

"I do. And if I am right, if the Templars did build it back in the fourteenth century, all kinds of interesting, historically significant possibilities arise."

My fledging sense of intrigue begins to vaporize, replaced by comfortably familiar skepticism. "I don't know. This all seems more than just a bit dubious. As I understand it, on the flimsiest of possibilities, you decided to become the proud owner of a dilapidated old church nobody wants."

"Divine inspiration," he says. "Or might it have been the devil? You might try praying for me."

"At least we're going to the right place. But I still don't get it."

"I think a short history lesson might help bring you up to speed. What do you know about the Knights Templar?"

I rack my brain. I have heard of King Arthur and his Knights of the Round Table, but I suppose they weren't Templars. "Not much, I finally admit. "Pretty much nothing, I guess."

"Well, back in the Middle Ages, they were hot shit. In European society, there was nobody more influential. For a couple of centuries, nobody wanted to mess with them. They were a law onto themselves. Templars were allowed to cross national borders unmolested and were spared taxation. They were warrior monks, armed with military might and the grace of God, who, along with much else, invented modern banking. Thanks to the Templars, people were able to write what amounted to checks instead of carrying around huge loads of gold bullion. As bankers are wont to do, they became fabulously wealthy and perhaps a bit too cocky."

"So whatever happened to them?"

"Almost overnight they went from King Shit to King Shit Upon. Seems the King of France owed them mucho dinero. They had financed some of his ill-conceived military adventures. He sought to eliminate his debt not by paying up, but uyby eliminating the Templars. He was in cahoots with the Pope, who apparently had his own somewhat mysterious reasons for wanting the Templars gone. If ever there was an unholy alliance, this was one."

"I can guess what happened next."

"No surprises here. There ensued a blood bath the likes of which the world had seldom seen. It all began in October of 1307, on Friday the thirteenth. Templars were rounded up, accused of heresy, witchcraft, even devil worship. They were tortured, dismembered, decapitated, burned alive—victims of pretty much every unpleasant punishment popular at that time. "

"So much for the Templars, huh? They were all burned at the stake?"

"Technically, nobody was burned at the stake. It is more accurate to say they were slow-cooked over low flames. This made the pain last for several hours. Made it easy to extract confessions.  Imagine how it must feel to have your smoldering flesh slowly peel away from your bare bones."

I felt a shiver coming on. A propensity for squeamishness is one of my weaknesses. "I'll pass on that," I say, "but I've gotta admit, those old-time Catholics had a style all their own. Tom once told me that the Catholic Church has been responsible for more deaths than any other institution in the history of mankind. From the get-go it dealt with adversaries in ways grotesque. So I guess the Templars were finished?"
 
"No, not really. There were several thousand Templars spread across most of Europe. Many were remarkably evasive. Records suggest most of them were forced into hiding, but avoided persecution.  A band of them made it to Scotland, where the king was sympathetic to anybody who didn't like the King of England. They helped him win a decisive battle against the British. The Templars had anchored a good-sized fleet off Scotland, and one day the ships had simply disappeared. Nobody knows where they went."

"I am sure you have your own ideas about that."

"I am betting they sailed, along with Prince Henry Sinclair, to America. Sinclair had been prominent up until that time, but then vanished from the public record. I can't imagine how else he could have just disappeared."

Before I could ask more questions, we are told to fasten our seatbelts. Moments later, after a smooth landing, Peter and I are first off the plane. We enter the terminal and head immediately to the Goggle/Hertz counter. There a bored, bleach blonde, gum-chewing girl gave Peter a rental form. Once he filled it out, she dutifully  scans his chip and directs us to a not-quite-clean Chevy at the end of the lot. Whoever had ordered it had insisted on varying shades of gray both inside and out.  Underway, it immediately became apparent our left-pulling chariot is due for an alinement. We don't really care. We are happy to be speeding along Route NS 103 E, heading towards the town of Chester. From there it will be just a short drive down to Lunenburg.








"We should be there in a little over an hour," Peter said. "We're meeting the bank guy at 1:30, so it looks like we'll be right on time."

Lunenburg turns out to be delightful. I am a first-time visitor and am as wide-eyed as any other tourist. Peter seems eager to play tour guide.

"This is the best surviving example of a planned British colonial settlement in North America," he points out. "Established in 1753, it has retained its original layout and overall appearance, based on a rectangular grid pattern drawn up in England. The inhabitants have managed to safeguard the city's identity throughout the centuries, preserving many of the original houses.

I was only half-listening. The history was all well and good, but what impresses me most is the predominance of the bright, primary colors showcasing most of the wooden residences along the waterfront.  To my way of thinking, history-conscious places in the United States feature way too many white houses with black shutters.

"The people here don't seem to be afraid to show themselves off," I say. "Somebody famous once said,  'If you've got it, flaunt it.' These people seem to have it, and are all-too-happy to flaunt it."

"That's a rather recent development," Peter says. "Not too many years ago, those places were a dingy sooty gray with a stench of cooked cabbage wafting out the doors. The town fathers spearheaded a drive to brighten things up and were quite successful."

"It all looks quite gentrified now."

"Back in the day when Lunenburg was a seafaring town, the waterfront was a rough and tumble place. There were houses of ill-repute and card sharks operating out of the saloons. Reputable people wouldn't let their children go down there."

I guess I had anticipated either a quaint fishing village or a lawless refuge for pirates and knaves, but I couldn't have been much further off the mark. These days Lunenburg's biggest business is tourism, which is supported b a full complement of restaurants, motels, bed and breakfasts, gift shops, and galleries Commercial fisheries here have been in a long decline. What's left for fisheries is big business, corporate aquacultural firms growing mussels. Nobody else has the big bucks to invest in the highly-specialized equipment used to decontaminate mussels. Saluting the past, there are a few stubborn scallopers working out of Lunenburg, but their future is bleak. Taking their place are bright young computer nerds at HB Studios producing a wide variety of video games.

Peter has arranged for us to meet the banker at The Knot, which he insists is  Lunenburg's liveliest pub. He is familiar with most of the town's restaurants and is determined to avoid what he called touristy places.

"The food at The Knot is good and the prices even better," he says. "A small order of mussels, which actually is huge, is less than ten dollars. The place is locally owned and operated, and the entries are all made from scratch."

We enter the place at 1:30 on the dot. I am not surprised to see it sports a nautical theme. Coils of rope and ship's models are everywhere. I spot a few museum-quality, antique navigational devices. Like you might find on any ancient sailing ship, there are exposed beams and plenty of dark woodwork.

Above the bar  is a sign, Be Nice or Leave, which seems unnecessary. This isn't the sort of place where drunks would get rowdy. Over to the right, two young men are focused on their darts game. Holding down one corner of the large room are half a dozen older men who almost looked like squatters. "That section is reserved for local regulars," Peter says. "Some of them haven't missed a day here in twenty years."

In the back there sits a man who stands out from all the others. He is wearing an expensive, pin-stripped suit and a yellow, silk, power tie. His wingtips glisten with a deep shine.  Sitting beside him is an impressive briefcase which might well have been carved from the hide of some exotic beast. He seems to be engrossed in his Wall Street Journal, but looks up as we approach him.

"Peter?" he asks.

"That would be me," Peter says as he shakes the man's hand. "This disreptable character with me is Douglas Doberman, my good and most reliable friend."

The man looks at me and smiles.  "I am Lloyd Barrington," he says. "Peter and I got acquainted on the phone this morning."

The paperwork doesn't take long. Peter is paying the full purchase price, so there are no mortgage arrangements to slow things down. "The best we can do is a quit claim deed," Barrington says. "The original deed, if there ever was one, has been long lost. Also a key to the front door, if ever there was one, is likewise long gone. I do hope this doesn't cause you undo inconvenience. "

"You did assure me there would be no problems assuming clear title," Peter says.

"I can't imagine why there should be any," Barrington says. "Nobody has shown any interest in the property for at least the last quarter century. There are years and years of unpaid taxes. The church itself, of course, hasn't been subject to property taxes, but the adjoining ten acres aren't exempt. As we agreed, the entire package is yours, free and clear since you have agreed to cover all the liens."

Barrington reached into his briefcase and brought out a crude hand-drawn map. "The building is here," he said, pointing to a neatly sketched X. He traced his finger along a rectangle surrounding the X. "The ten acres, more or less, were surveyed a year ago. Boundaries are marked by tape. As you can see, there's no road frontage. As you know, there is no electric, no well, and no septic system. There is a deeded right-of-way from the main road, an unkempt dirt road." His face lit up with a small smile. " The way things are going with sea rise, you might soonkl; have ocean frontage. However, by the time that happens, I am afraid Linenburg will have washed away."

Peter wasn't amused. "Where exactly is this place?" he asks.

"You take Beecher Street to Elm, turn right and head out of town. A mile and a quarter out, on the right, you'll see a birch tree with orange surveyor's tape wound around it several times. This marks the beginning of what once was a dirt road. I am afraid it's overgrown with bushes and small trees and might be somewhat difficult to follow. I would go with you, but I don't want to ruin my shine. The building is three quarters of a mile down this old road. Are there any other questions?"

There are none. Barrington places Peter's check and his copies of the documents in his briefcase and snaps it shut. He shakes hands with Peter, gives me a little wave, and leaves. I suspect he was relieved to put two such questionable characters into his past. I wonder if he has doubts the check will clear.

Peter and I decide to forego the mussels. We want to see the church. Five minutes later, we are looking for a birch tree wrapped in orange tape. Finding it was no problem, and thirty seconds later we are trudging down a barely discernible former road. It isn't easy going. Spruce-fir trees are over-taking the poplar and birch, and many are well on their way to full growth. The most common of the bushes has little red berries and very sharp thorns. Given another ten years or so without human intervention, this road will be lost forever.

After wending our way for nearly half an hour, we round a bend and see a  church, situated on a slight rise, looming ahead. It's two stories high with a steeply pitched roof and an impressive circular, stained glass window over the large, solid-looking double-doors. There is no steeple, no belfry for a bell. I wonder if steeplelessness could define denomination. The place was in rather better shape than I had imagined it would be. Its stones were well-chosen, with basketball-sized ones near the bottom and progressively smaller ones nearer the roof. The roof itself is constructed from slabs of thick slate that, while cracked in places, have mostly stayed in place. The doors are massive cuts of oak held intact by heavy brass fittings. Giving off an air of impenetrability, these doors are singularly impressive.

We begin walking around the perimeter of the ancient structure. Its backside, as Peter had noted, formed a semicircle. "Look at those stones," Peter says, pointing to the rear wall. "They are darker and considerably more weathered than those up front. They're definitely older. The back of this church was built years before the front. I am convinced that the original church was circular."

The evenly curved, east-facing back wall must have been twenty-five feet high. Peter points to a narrow, rectangular window near the top. "I'll bet any amount of money that during the spring solstice sunlight flowed through that window to something of immense importance inside. The Templars had a tradition of orienting buildings in observance of the solstices."

We find a wooden door on the backside hanging on a single, rusty hinge. A piece of bent wire attached to the frame was all that kept it in place. Without much trouble I am able to twist the wire aside and wrench the door open. It is dark inside, and we are glad we brought flashlights. I find a lantern half-filled with kerosene, and when I got it to light, the room came alive with a warm, soft glow, allowing us to get our bearings .

We are in a storage room. There is a rack of fifteen or twenty nearly-new-looking choir robes. There is a pair of tarnished, brass candelabras holding dirty, white, half-consumed candles. There are several boxes of well-used hymnals. There are eight or ten felt-lined pans which I imagine had been used to collect offerings. There is a lectern with a big old Bible on it. I draw close to it turn over the cover. It is water-stained and dotted with specks of mold and isn't worth much. Any fantasies I might have harbored regarding stumbling across an ancient, mint-condition Gutenberg are quickly dashed.

On a shelf on the backside of the lectern I find a copy of a sermon titled, "Doing Onto Others Is its Own Reward." Under a torn sheet  are boxes of plain, white paper and an antique mimeograph machine. Parked in a corner is an old generator, evidently the only source of electricity the church ever had. I can't help but wonder who the people were that last worshipped there. An air of gloom hangs over the place. The congregation had fought the good fight, but had come up short.

Peter and I enter the front portion of the church through an open doorway. There is a staging raised two steps above the rest of the room. There are benches on both sides on an aisle leading to the front door. The seating, which may have been overly optimistic, could have accommodated a couple of hundred parishioners. Sadly it had been a long time since it housed any parishioners at all. The dead silence was beginning to strike me as downright  creepy. If God were real, perhaps He hated being left alone.

I am deep in thought when Peter walks over to me. "See that window?" he asks, pointing to the big round enclosure of stained glass over the front door. "See the panel in the middle depicting two riders on a single horse? That was the Templar's way of depicting their original vow of poverty. Supposedly knights couldn't afford their own horses. That single pane of glass removes any doubts I might have had. This church was built by the Templar Knights."

We return to the back part of the church.  I can't tell if Peter is pleased that his theory seems correct or if he was disappointed we haven't found anything of real value. I don't know what he had hoped to find. Certainly a collection of early first editions or a historic Bible were both extremely unlikely. My sense is he'd acquired a damn cool church with some righteous history associated with it.

Peter isn't saying much, and I suspect he wants a few minutes alone. I wander over to a corner where I am admiring the wide, pine floor boards when I notice a peculiarity. In the far corner they became noticeably narrower. I look more closely and can see the faint outline of what could be a seam around the narrow boards. At first I take it to be a simple repair job on a rotting floor, but then it dawns on me that it could be an artfully concealed trapdoor.

"Peter, you might want to take a look at this," I say. It took Peter but a moment to realize it was, indeed, a difficult-to-discern trap door. He snatches his hunting knife from its sheath and forces the tip of the blade into the faint seam. It is a sturdy knife, almost as good as a crowbar, and he is able to lift the door a fraction of an inch. I force one of the collection plates into the gap and am able to lift the door a couple of inches. Peter gets both hands into the seam and hoists the heavy slab open. I shine my light into the hole and se that there are steps descending to a lower level.

"I don't know if I would trust those steps," Peter says, but I was already on my way down. I don't know what we expect to find, but my initial reaction was disappointment. The room is empty except for two rickety wooden chairs and a crudely constructed wooden table on which sits a rough wooden box perhaps 18 inches square and less than than four inches deep. The box had Helvetica lettering stamped on it, Hillside Farm, and I suspected it originally held quarts of blueberries. Now all it seemed to hold was a wadded up mass of burlap.

"Any thoughts on why this old crate is hidden away down here?" I ask.

Peter shakes his head. "Damned if I know," he replies. He grabs hold of the burlap and begins removing it. "Hold on, here," he says. "This is heavier than it ought to be." He begins to untangle the rough material and soon producs a wooden box perhaps eight inches long, five inches wide, four inches tall.  I assume the  fine-grained, reddish-brown wood is mahogany. The top is held in place by a gold clasp, and below that was a silver cross with curved sides closing in on one another.

"That's a Templar cross," Peter says, and I can see that he is becoming  excited.

"Nice design," I say. "Looks like on top of everything else, Templars were accomplished graphic artists."

Peter, getting more and more excited, isn't listening. "We're on to something big," he says. " I just know it." Carefully, he opens the box. Inside was a single sheet of paper, folded once. Peter takes it out and opens it up. His look of anticipation is replaced by one of puzzlement. He hands the paper to me. On it from left to right are an X with a short stem projecting from the upper righthand side, a crude sketch of a long, narrow rectangle divided into five sections with openings on two sides,  and, beside that, a drawn enclosure with two straight sides and a curved side surrounding the numeral 1412. The sketch in the middle, which is Xed out, somehow seems vaguely familiar.

Peter looks bewildered and a bit pissed off. "Is this supposed to tell us something?"

"Yeah,  it's bound to mean something, but don't ask me what."

Peter shrugs. "Mighty fancy box for a single sheet of paper without much on it."

I hope I could make Peter happier.  "Must have been mighty important to somebody," I asserted. "Shouldn't take too long for a couple of smart guys like us to figure it out."
 




CHAPTER SEVENTEEN

BACK HOME,e I am ready to drink my first cup of coffee and check out my e-mail when it happens. As I reach for the power button, the monitor screen turns snow white. Seconds later, type in a font I take to be 60-point aerial bold appears: WHY HAVE YOU STOPPED TRYING TO FIND THE PORTAL?

Dumbfounded, I stare at my large, flatscreen Dell. Then I type the words, “Clint I presume?” They appear on the screen in modest 24-point Aerial regular italic.

The words WE MEET AT LAST, still in large, bold, Aerial caps, appear almost instantly. Whoever is typing this is faster than me and insistent on a more emphatic tone.

Okay,” I type. “I am impressed. How the hell do you do it?”

DO WHAT? Appears before I can lift my hands from the keys. This guy is nearly as fast as Goggle.

“Get those words to appear on my screen.”

After a infinitesimally short pause, NO GREAT PROBLEM.  YOUR MAC. IS READILY ACCESSIBLE TO A COLLECTION OF PHOTONS SUCH AS MYSELF. A RATHER HANDSOME COLLECTION, ACTUALLY. NOTHING YOU COULDN'T DO WITH A LITTLE PRACTICE—OR MAYBE, IN YOUR CASE, A LOT OF PRACTICE.

"And when you're not photons? What then? I suppose you're going to tell me you're Clint."

THAT’S A GOOD NAME. BUT TELL ME, WHY AREN’T YOU TRYING TO FIND THE PORTAL? HAVE YOU GIVEN UP ALREADY?

I think about this a bit. Hell, I decide, I might as well be brutally honest. “I’ve been rather busy,” I type. “Not much time for chasing phantoms or wills-of-the-wisp or whatever the hell you say you are. I do have a life to live.”

HOW IN THE WORLD DO YOU EXPECT TO FIND THE PORTAL? YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT IT LOOKS LIKE. The letters, all caps, appear one after the other in rapid-fire order. The typist is hitting better than 60 w.p.m.

"Whatever you say, er, Clint. Okay, I'll bite. To what do I owe the honor of this visitation?"

SENSITIVITY. MY SENSITIVITY. WATCHING YOU FLOUNDER AROUND ON YOUR TRIP TO ROCKLAND WAS A TOTAL WASTE OF YOUR TIME AND MINE.  IT MAKES ME WANT TO SCREAM. YOU HAVE NO IDEA WHAT YOU'RE DOING.

"So I've been often told."

SEEMS LIKE YOU'VE GIVEN UP BEFORE YOU'VE EVEN BEGUN. DO YOU HAVE ANY IDEA WHO YOU'RE DEALING WITH?

"I know I am dealing with one tricky son of a bitch."

SINCE YOU KNOW NOTHING OF MY MOTHER, IF I EVEN HAD ONE,  I'LL ASSUME YOUR REFERENCE TO HER WAS IN THE SPIRIT OF COMRADERIE. IN THAT SAME SPIRIT, ONE BUDDY TO ANOTHER, I WILL ASSUME THE D IN CAPTIAN D STANDS FOR DIPSHIT.

"Assume the reference to you being a son of a bitch was in the spirit of calling a spade a spade. Seems to me you truly are an underhanded, sneaky, low-life son of a bitch."

I MAY BE THESE THINGS, BUT YOU'RE STILL UTTERLY CLUELESS. BUT, HEY, DUDE, I AM HERE TO ASSIST YOU.

"Well, that's good to know, although I am far from convinced you would know a portal from your asshole."

YOU'RE HITTING A LITTLE CLOSE TO HOME WITH THAT ONE, DIPSHIT. CLOSER THAN YOU MIGHT IMAGINE. CERTAINLY THAT IS NO WAY TO TALK TO SOMEBODY WHO IS JUST TRYING TO GIVE YOU A SPORTING CHANCE. ESPECIALLY SOMEBODY WHO JUST SAVED YOUR ASS.”

“What do you mean by that?”

WHO DO YOU THINK RENDERED POLLY’S GUN INOPERABLE?

“You did that?”

WHO ELSE? I DID THINK THE SIRENS WERE A NICE TOUCH.

"You did those?"

WHO ELSE? YOU DIDN'T THINK THEY WERE COINCIDENTAL DID YOU?

"Well, actually, yes, I did."

ARE YOU ALWAYS SO GULLIBLE?

“Possibly. The more I think about it, the answer may be probably.  But in any event, I do wish you had rendered the girls inoperable.”

NO COULD DO. I AM WAY TOO MUCH OF A GENTLEMAN FOR THAT. AS IT WAS, I SERIOUSLY OVERSTEPPED THE BOUNDS OF MY AUTHORITY. I WENT WAY OUT ON A LIMB WITH THOSE SIRENS. ANYWAY, I WAS UNDER THE IMPRESSION THAT IN YOUR SPECIES THE MALE WAS PHYSICALLY DOMINANT. GREATER UPPER BODY STRENGTH AND ALL THAT. WHAT HAPPENED TO YOURS?

"I really didn't need your help. I was waiting to make my move."

HA HA. YOU DON'T SEEM TO REMEMBER I WAS THERE. SAW THE WHOLE THING. YOU KNOW, I COULD GET TIRED OF SAVING YOUR BUTT. LAST NIGHT YOU WERE ABOUT TO GET IT PUNCTURED IN SEVERAL PLACES."

I am all but speechless. Finally, I manage to stammer, "You were there too?"

I OWED IT TO JACK.

A sudden realization. "You were the quaint old duck dressed up like Mark Twain."

TOM WOLFE ACTUALLY.

"Let's suppose for a moment you really did save the day, or perhaps the evening.  I guess I should be appreciative, but I still would have to wonder why. What made you do this?”

HOW ELSE COULD I KEEP YOU IN THE GAME?

"Why is this so-called game so important?"

I AM BORED. I LOVE GOLF, BUT HIDE-AND-GO-SEEK IS FUN TOO. JACK ASSURED ME YOU WOULD BE A WORTHY ADVERSARY.

”I suppose you did what you had to do. So, thanks, I guess, if it really was you who saved me from being first shot, then stabbed.”

APOLOGY ACCEPTED.

I keep quiet. I am not aware I've apologized for anything, but what the fuck. After a moment, I decide to stick up for myself. "The D, you know, could stand for dynamic or even dangerous. But more to the point, why should I believe anything you say?"

THE D COULD ALSO STAND FOR DAMAGED OR DUMBSHIT OR DERANGED OR DOUBTFUL. BUT WHY DO YOU DOUBT ME? WHY WOULD I SHIT YOU? NO WAY, JOSE. AND, FOR YOUR INFORMATION, DIPSHIT, I JUST INSTITUTED A NEW RULE REGARDING THE  PORTAL, EVEN IF YOU SOMEHOW STUMBLED ACROSS IT, IT WILL OPEN FOR YOU ONLY IF YOU UTTER A CERTAIN PHRASE.

"Jesus, can you get any hokier? Now it's magic phrases."

I AM NOT JESUS, ALTHOUGH I MAY HAVE KNOWN THE MAN AND  HELPED HIM OUT WITH A MIRACLE OR TWO.

"Now you've gone from annoying to outlandish, not to mention sacrilegious."

YOU SHOULDN’T UNDER-ESTIMATE ME. YOU KNOW, I WAS AROUND WHEN THE BIG BANG BOOMED. I REMEMBER IT WELL. BELIEVE ME, IT WAS ONE HELL OF A RUSH.

“Gee, I’m impressed. You must be, well, God, I guess.”

I DIDN’T SAY I MADE THE BIG BANG BOOM. BUT I WAS THERE, JUST AS I’VE BEEN MANY, MANY PLACES EVER SINCE. YOU SEEM LIKE A JOKESTER. I'LL BET YOU'RE ONE OF THOSE PEOPLE WITH A BUMPER STICKER THAT SAYS SOMETHING LIKE "NUKE THE GAY WHALES." I'LL BET YOU THINK THAT'S PRETTY FUNNY.

"Actually I do."

DON'T YOU REALIZE HOW HURTFUL HUMOR IS? JOKES INVARIABLY ARE AT THE EXPENSE OF SOMEBODY. NEARLY ALL TECHNOLOGICALLY ADANCED CULTURES HAVE MOVED PAST HUMOR. JUST ANOTHER REASON WHY YOURS WILL NEVER BE WELCOMED WITHIN THE FEDERATION.

"The joke's on us, I guess. I guess somebody as amart as you can't also be funny. It does sound like you must know pretty much everything.”

I ONLY KN0W WHAT HAS CAUGHT MY ATTENTION. PLENTY WENT ON THAT DIDN’T INTEREST ME OR WENT UNNOTICED. NOW, WHERE WAS I? OH, I REMEMBER. I WAS GOING TO TELL YOU  ABOUT THAT CERTAIN PHRASE...

"Something obscene I presume."

NO, NOT OBSCENE. ALTHOUGH IT RELATES TO A HISTORY THAT SOME MIGHT FIND OBSCENE. THE PHRASE IS, 'I DID NOT HAVE SEXUAL RELATIONS WITH THAT WOMAN'. YOU HAVE TO SAY THAT, AND SOUND LIKE YOU MEAN IT. CONVICTION COUNTS. YOU ALSO HAVE TO WAG YOUR FINGER UP AND DOWN.

"That seems familiar."

SHOULD YOU APPROACH THE PORTAL, YOU'LL BE GREETED BY A SOMEWHAT OVERWEIGHT YOUNG WOMAN IN A BLUE DRESS.

"Monica,  I suppose."

"SHE DOESN'T HAVE A NAME. SHE'S AN ILLUSION. YOU CAN CALL HER ANYTHING YOU LIKE."

"Is she wearing knee pads?"

THAT WOULD HAVE BEEN A NICE TOUCH. BUT, NO, SHE ISN'T.

"So why are you telling me all this?

I AM GIVING YOU A SPORTING CHANCE, DIPSHIT. JACK AND I MADE A BET. JACK THOUGHT YOU CAN FIND ME. I SAY, NO WAY, JOSE. IT'S ONLY FAIR FOR ME TO MAKE IT SOMEWHAT CONCEIVABLE THAT YOU MIGHT FIND ME.

"Jack’s dead. You must know that.”

I DO. IT SADDENS ME. BUT THE BET'S STILL ON. NOW IT'S WITH YOU.
 
"Did you kill Jack?"

NO.

"But you know who did?

I DON'T.

"Could you find out?

IN THEORY. BUT BRINGING THAT TIME BACK  COULD BE CONSTRUED AS INTERNING IN EARTHLY AFFAIRS. THE ASSGRASSIANS ARE JUST WAITING TO CATCH ME IN THE ACT OF OVERSTEPPING  MY BOUNDS.

"The Assgrassians?"

I MADE THE NAME UP. THEY'RE COSMIC COPS, AND THEY'RE OUT TO TAKE MY JOB AWAY AND GIVE IT TO ONE OF THEIR OWN. THE NAME SUGGESTS WHAT MY ASS WILL BE IF THEY CATCH ME IN HUMAN FORM OR MESSING TOO MUCH IN HUMAN AFFAIRS.

“Suppose I find you. What then?”

THEN I OWE YOU TEN YEARS SERVITUDE. OF COURSE THIS WOULD REQUIRE KEEPING ME EXTANT.

"You make it sound like a fairy tale. Guess Rumplestilskin's name and you get to keep the gold."

WHERE DO YOU THINK THAT STORY CAME FROM?

"Let me guess. You're Rumplestilskin?

I WAS ONCE.

"You've jumped the shark with that one," I say as I reach toward the power button. "I can always turn you off." I push the button. Nothing happens. I reach down and jerk the plug. Still nothing happens.

Instantly the admonition THAT WAS RUDE appears on the screen.

I swear under my breath.  "I would hate to have to take my shotgun and blast my nearly new 26-inch screen."

YOU DON'T HAVE A SHOTGUN. IF YOU DID, YOU WOULD PROBABLY MISS. IF BY SOME FLUKE YOU MANAGE TO SMASH THE SCREEN. I MIGHT FEEL A SLIGHT ITCH, NOTHING MORE. BUT NOW THAT I HAVE YOUR ATTENTION, I HAVE A CONFESSION TO MAKE.

“You’re confusing me with Father Flanagan.”

HARDLY. THIS CONFESSION CONCERNS YOU DIRECTLY. YOU KNOW THAT HORRIBLE BOUNCE THAT LOST YOU THE MAINE OPEN?

Know it? I have hardly ever stopped thinking about it. This was Maine’s most important tournament , and I had a two shot lead with one hole to go. I had never felt more relaxed or more confident. I hit my drive on 18 sweetly and straight as an arrow about 340 yards. The open was all but over. I could lay up with a mid-iron, chip on, two putt, and still win by two. Even if I stubbed my toe and made bogey, it wouldn’t matter. They had already begun to inscribe my name on that big, silver trophy.

Trouble was, that isn’t how things worked out. My ball came down in the middle of the fairway, but instead of staying there, it took a huge bounce straight left. Like a ball possessed by demons, it went into the trees bordering the 18th fairway. I can’t believe my eyes. Still, it doesn't seem to matter.  The recovery shot didn't seem at all difficult. The ball had a clean lie. I figured I would wedge it back onto the fairway and still have no problem making six. I was never able to understand what possessed me, but I jerked through the worst swing I had made in years. My wedge shot never got airborne and was way left of where I was lined up. The ball came to rest between a couple of roots forty yards away. It was unplayable, and I had to take a drop and a one-shot penalty. After that, things got a bit foggy. I was never able to recall too many of the details. When all was said and done, my caddie informed me I had taken a nine on the hole. This dropped me into a tie for third place. I made history, okay, but for making the biggest meltdown in Maine Open history.

Instead of getting as far away Sugarloaf as possible, I stayed over night. The next day I walked back to the spot where my tee-shot had come down. I figured there had to be a rock, a bottle, a turtle—something hard and unforgiving to cause a bounce like that. I thought I might take it as a souvenir. But there was nothing there but lush green grass. That bounce seemed to defy the laws of physics.

I gape at my monitor in utter disbelief. For several seconds, I can't begin to formulate a response.  Then I think of a few foul names I could call Clint, but none are foul enough. I find it impossible to believe an evil demon could have caused that bounce. The mere notion of it should send it immediately to Hell. 

“Why do you want to accept blame for an act so utterly dastardly?” I finally ask.

I WAS STUDYING YOU. I WANTED TO SEE HOW YOU WOULD RESPOND TO SUCH A CRUEL TWIST OF FATE. I MUST SAY YOU RESPONDED QUITE ADMIRABLY.

I remember laughing when a reporter asked me how I felt. No doubt I was in shock, but the question struck me as not only absurd, but unbelievably hilarious.  Truth was I didn’t feel anything. There are no feelings remotely appropriate for the situation. Is numb a feeling or a lack thereof? Something had happened to my nervous system. It short-circuited or disintegrated or simply took a little time off. Later, I convince myself it really didn’t matter. I had felt my  future was secure. Even second tier touring pros bring in millions. You didn’t have to actually win tournaments to get ridiculously rich. Consistent top ten finishes were all one really needed.

I GOT IN TROUBLE FOR WHAT I DID. I AM NOT SUPPOSED TO STICK MY NOSE IN HUMANKIND’S BUSINESS. I AM JUST SUPPOSED TO OBSERVE, AND TO BE READY TO PULL THE PLUG WHEN THE APPROPRIATE TIME COMES.

“I didn’t know what to say. Obviously if you jerked my ball onto the beach, you
 were a naughty boy. Wait, let me rephrase that. How about an indescribably evil entity. Whoever your keepers are, I wish they would keep you on a shorter leash. Once we’re properly introduced, remind me eviscerate you. I want to wad your scrotum into a dense ball and stomp on it for hours on end.””

I DON’T THINK YOU COULD FIND MY SCROTUM. FACT IS, I DON’T THINK YOU CAN FIND MUCH OF AMYTHING. THE MORE I THINK ABOUT IT, THE MORE I THINK I SHOULD SEND YOU ON A PRACTICE MISSION.

“I have a rather full menu just now. I really don’t have time for your fun and games.”

THAT’S WHY YOUR PRACTICE MISSION SHOULD BE REALLY WORTHWHILE. LET’S SEE. WHAT WOULD DEFINITELY BE WORTH YOUR TIME. WHAT IF I TOLD YOU THAT YOUR WIFE IS ALIVE AND WELL AND IF YOU MANAGE TO FIND ME YOU WOULD BE WELL ON YOUR WAY TO FINDIDNG HER.  .

“I would say I know thing you’re even crazier than I did five minutes ago, and that’s more or less completely loony.”

WELL IT’S TRUE.

"Hang on you son of a bitch. Tell me what you know about Marlina."

I CAN'T.

"What do you mean can't?  Do you mean can't, or won't?"

IT DOESN'T MATTER. BUT I WOULD ADVISE YOU AND PETER TO TAKE A CLOSER LOOK AT HIS CHURCH.

With that the screen turned off. No white background, no black words. Nothing.










CHAPTER EIGHTEEN

IT IS MID-MORNING  two days later when Peter calls and requests lunch. "Important we keep in touch," he says. "I have made some progress."

I suggest we meet at at Flexit in downtown Ellsworth. I figure we might want to go online, and t's the closest thing in the territory to an internet cafe. The food is good, the prices tolerable. Peter and I both order egg salad sandwiches..

We waste little time getting down to business.  "I've been researching the X we found on that note," he begins.  "You know, the one with the little stem. I thought it seemed familiar. As a symbol, it has a really long history."

"No surprise there."

"Okay, pay attention now. It's called the hooked X, and it is an important coded runic symbol likely created by Cistercian monks, a sect founded in the late eleventh century." Peter reaches inside his backpack, withdraws a book, and begins reading from a marked section.  "The ‘X’ is symbolic of the allegorical representation of the duality and balance of man and woman, and heaven and earth. The ‘hook’ in the X is symbolic of the child or offspring, representative of the continuation and perpetuation of the ‘Goddess’ ideology through common bloodlines and thought. How do you like them apples?”

"Very impressive. It encourages an equally deep response, and that might be, 'So What?'"

Peter gives me a look similar to one he might give a cabbage. "Have you ever heard of the Kensington Rune Stone?"

"Can't say that I have."

"Well, if you'd been paying attention, you would have. It's one of the most important archaeological finds ever. It goes back to 1898 when Olaf Ohman, a farmer in Minnesota, unearthed a 200 pound stone wrapped up in the roots of a tree he was removing. The stone was covered on both sides with weird inscriptions. The way this stone was tangled in the roots of a mature tree seemed to prove that it had been buried centuries earlier. On it is the date 1362."

"And thus were born the Minnesota Vikings, Bud Grant, Fran Tarkington, and the cult of scrambling quarterbacks."

Peter isn't amused. "What was born was a furious controversy," he exclaims. "Establishment historians have always resisted the idea of much pre-Columbian European visitation to the Americas. They were quick to accuse Ohman, an uneducated man, of creating a great forgery. Everybody who knew him insisted he would never have thought of doing such a thing, but this didn't quell the controversy."

I never minded a little controversy, but it is obvious Peter wishes this one had gone away. But if wishes were fishes, we would all have halibut on our dishes. "So what happened?" I ask. "How did they go about settling the matter?"

Peter waves away the waitress who has appeared coffee pot in hand. "In this case, they decided to rely on professionalism," he says. "They called in Scott Wolter, a highly respected forensic archaeologist. They asked him to do whatever it took to determine the stone's authenticity. He complied with their wishes.  He did a very thorough job, utilizing such disciplines as geology, rune study, linguistics, and history before concluding there was no evidence consistent with forgery."

"So that settled that?"

"Hardly. The academics showed a real flair for ignoring his work and continuing to insist the stone was fake. Wolter, however, proved to be a very determined man. Among the runes on the stone was a hooked X, similar to the one on the note we found. Wolter knew that the hooked X was associated with Medieval Templars. This set him off on a long and difficult crusade."

My first thought is that Peter is over-dramatizing the matter. "He is beginning to sound like Don Quixote," I say. "Did he gather up his lance and mount his white charger? Did he go off to tilt windmills?"

"Not quite. But he did investigate other rune stones. They have been found in several locations, including Narragansett Bay, Rhode Island, and Spirit Pond, Maine. In each of these cases he found hooked Xs. Then he checked out sites in Europe known to be Templar haunts, and he found many more hooked Xs. The more he looked into the matter, the more convinced he became that Templars visited America way ahead of Columbus."

"Sounds like he would have loved your church."

"Indeed, I am sure he would have. He suspected that Templars built the mysterious Newport Tower, and showed that there were Templar-like astronomical aspects to it."

History has never been my strong suit. Astronomical aspects aren't either. But over the years I have learned enough to ask a few good questions, one of which has been will  they ever find intelligent life on Earth? Another one pops into my mind. "This is all really quite interesting," I allow, "or at least I guess it is, but, then again, when you get right down to it, So What?"

I am not too sure why, but Peter never gets terribly annoyed with me. Maybe he is just used to me. Maybe he likes the many opportunities I give him to demonstrate his brilliance. Whatever his reason, he is patient with me, taking his time setting me straight.

 "So what? he asks. "So several things. I guess the thing that might most immediately capture your attention is the legend that the Templars had in their possession a vast fortune."

Peter is right. He has gotten my attention. "Go on," I say. "Tell me more."

Peter removes his glasses and begins wiping them with a napkin. I take it as a dramatic gesture to let the suspense build a bit. I don't say anything, but I do feel he is over-doing it just a bit. 

Finally, after a pause that seemed interminable, he begins speaking. "The original mission of the Knights Tamplar was to protect pilgrims on the road to the Holy Land," he says. "At least that was the official rationalization. Anybody could have seen there was much more to it since originally there are only nine Templars, so it was problematical how much actual protecting they can do on a road hundreds of miles long. Whatever the real reason for their existence, they were highly favored by the pope. They were, in fact, held in such high regard that they were able to establish their Jerusalem headquarters on the ruins of King Solomon's Temple. The story is known  that they did a lot of digging in and around this location. Anybody could see they were looking for something. Nobody knows what, if anything, they found, but when they returned to France they very quickly became fabulously wealthy. This is all verifiable history."

"What could they have found that would be all that valuable?"

"There has been loads of speculation. Everything from silver and gold to religious relics. Anybody's guess, really. What we do know for sure is that when the persecution of the Templars got underway, their treasure, if it exists, was up for grabs. Problem was, nobody could find it."

"Possibly because it doesn't exist?"

"Possibly. The possibility that I find much more intriguing is that Templars fleeing for their lives sailed for the Americas and brought the treasure with them. In any event, it's never been found."

"You are beginning to interest me."

"About time."

I feel like it is time for me to prove myself by taking the floor. "I've had a few astonishing insights of my own," I say. "You know the sketch on our note, the one that's crossed out? I finally realize where I saw one similar."

"And where might that be?"

"In Yankee Magazine, in an article on the Oak Island Money Pit."

"I've heard Betsy speak of that."

"I am sure she would be familiar with it. Oak Island is directly off Lunenburg, practically in her backyard. There is a causeway making it possible to drive to the island."

"So refresh my memory."

This is more like it. I like being the smart guy.  "In 1795, three boys saw lights coming from the island and went over to investigate. They found a circular depression on the ground. They went and got shovels and started digging. This set off a long string of excavations leading up to this very day. The pit, which is 230-feet deep, turned out to be a sophisticated feat of engineering. Diggers found that every ten feet down there was a layer of oak tree trunks. Further layers revealed putty and coconut fibers and then a mysterious stone slab bearing strange symbols."

"Sound like it got weirder and weirder."

 "It also got more and more dangerous.  The pit turned out to be booby-trapped. When explorers reached a certain depth, they released a plug and the pit was flooded. Numerous efforts to pump out the pit have all failed. Six men have died in this quest, lending credence to the legend the island is haunted."

"And after all this time, nobody's come up with anything?"

"Not from the pit itself, but in the surrounding area they have found several interesting items, including battle hatchets from the 1700s, Several English coins from the 1600s, a Victorian brooch, and, get this, a Knights Templar coin."

"Could it have been pirates?"

"Pirates weren't builders. They were good at plundering, not engineering. They would never have built anything that sophisticated. That sketch we found. Yankee Magazine ran a similar sketch detailing how the booby trap might have been avoided."

Peter was ignoring his sandwich. "So the builders of the pit had advanced engineering skills?"

"For sure, and back then there weren't many folks possessing them. The cast of characters was limited to Indians, and possibly a few fishermen and French trappers. Hard to think of any engineers, except perhaps your Knights Templar."

"Like our Knights Templar. You're very much a part of this, you know."

"Thanks, I guess. But that leads us to the third, and possibly most important, sketch. I stare at for several moments. Something about it... I think the synapses of my brain are having a field day, sending flashes back and forth, urgently building up to a finale. And then a crystal-clear insight.

"The photos I took of the lower level," I say. "Do you have them with you?"

Peter reaches into his backpack and brings forth a stack of ten or twelve prints I had taken earlier. Slowly, I shuffle through them. I am not sure what I am looking for, but feel certain it is here somewhere.  Then, Eureka!, I know the answer.

"It's the cornerstone," I explain, pointing to a rock at the bottom north-east corner. "It's straight on two sides which form  a near ninety degree angle with the other two sides comprised of what basically is a curve.  It's the shape in your sketch!"

Peter looks at his sketch, then at the photo, then back to his sketch. "By Jesus, you're right," he says. "That's gotta be it. And the 1412 could be the year it was laid. Lo and behold, it all makes sense."

"We have places to go and things to do," I say. "We need to be heading back to Nova Scotia."










CHAPTER NINETEEN

AT 10:30 THE FOLLOWING MORNING we are on a plane to Halifax. Once we land, the same sleepy-eyed girl at Goggle/Hertz hands me a car rental form. She gives no hint of recognizing us. I think we also get the same Chevy. Same dull gray finish, same slightly less dull gray vinyl upholstery, same slight out-of-alinement pull to the left. Same girl, same vehicle, same Peter. He hasn't said much all the way here, and I can tell there is something on his mind.

His driving doesn't thrill me. Or maybe I should say impress me. When he comes up fast upon a slow-moving tractor he gets way too close before punching the brakes. Finally he says, "Wolter did a lot more than look for hooked Xs. He became convinced that Prince Henry Sinclair came to America with the Templars and brought with him a priceless item: the Holy Grail."

"Or maybe the tooth fairy or the Easter bunny." I have wondered if Scott Wolter, part TV celebrity, part forensic archaeologist, should be taken seriously.

I thank God that Peter waits for an approaching car to pass before pulling out and sweeping around the tractor. Once he is safely back in his own lane and my breathing returns to normal, Peter continues speaking.  "Henry was a VIP in Scotland, right up until 1398 when he disappeared from sight. He seems to have vanished into thin air. After 1398 there is no record of his having conducted business of any sort. Over night he went from prominence to non-entity. He never bought or sold real-estate, got married or divorced, drew up a will, or even died. It was like he never existed."

"You told me he was a Templar," I say. "Maybe he was keeping a low profile."

Peter shakes his head. "There would have been no need for that in Scotland. Templars were protected there. Especially those of Henry's stature. It may have been Templars that helped Robert the Bruce defeat the English."

"Is there reason to suppose he came here?"

"Nothing official, but a long-held legend has it that he built a castle in New Ross, a community a few miles north of Lunenburg."

"Well, either there's a castle or there isn't."

Peter shakes his head again. "There isn't, although Wolter did find a man who claimed to be a distant Sinclair descendant who showed him large stones that might once have foundation stones supporting a castle. Wolter investigated the site and found an underground chamber, but it was empty. Wolter theorized that Sinclair first secured the grail on Oak Island before moving it to New Ross and later moving it somewhere else. The grail, he insisted, could be several things, including documents detailing the bloodline of Jesus. He thought the Templars symbolized the bloodline with the hooked Xs."

To me the evidence seems incredibly scant. Hell, calling it scant gives it too much dignity. There is no evidence at all. None of this is making any sense. Big stones could be foundation stones or they could be just stones. To paraphrase Freud, sometimes a stone is just a stone. I decide to enter an objection.  "I never knew that Jesus was married," I said. "Does it really seem likely that he was a dad?"

"The scriptures don't mention his marital status," Peter replies. "We do know that according to custom almost all Jewish men of Jesus' time and place would have taken a wife. Jesus was regarded as a rabbi, and pretty much all of them were married. Jesus's disciples were married as well. He did seem to have a very special relationship with one close follower, Mary Magdalene.  One account has him kissing her on the lips. Another has it that he loved Mary more than he did the other disciples. Had there been tabloids back then, they would have made a lot of covers."

"Wasn't she a prostitute?"

Peter sighs.  "There once were rumors to that effect, but nothing in the gospels suggesting it. The Catholic Church quite likely was responsible for propagating the rumors. It was in the year 591 that Pope Gregory first decreed that the Magdalene was a sinful woman. He didn't define her sins, but we can infer he thought she was a whore. Some scholars have suggested he may have confused her with one of the other Marys of that period. There were a lot of them, including Jesus' mother, the Virgin Mary. In any event, the mud slinging persisted for way more than a thousand years. Talk about the difficult of reversing a bad reputation. Eventually Mary's innocence became Church doctrine.  In 1969, better late than never, I guess, the Church officially gave her a clean bill of health."

On that conclusive note, we fall into silence for the rest of our ride. When we get to Lunenburg, we are ready to eat something. Both of us skipped breakfast and we are famished. I suggest we stop by McGoggle's for a quick, cheap  lunch. "I am tired already," I admit."We should fortify ourselves with burgers and fries for the trek to the church."

"A few blocks back we passed a place called Beth's Burgers," I say. "Let's go there."

Peter says okay, so I turn the car around and head back to Beth's.  I grab a parking spot right in front and climb out of the car. Peter follows suit, but seems to hesitate. He stops in the middle of the sidewalk and puts his fingertips to his temple. "Hang on," he says. "I am getting bad vibes from this place. It's actually giving me a headache. Can we head back to Goggle/McDonald's?"

To me it doesn't make a whole hell of a lot of difference, so I accommodate Peter and head back to the golden arches two blocks away. I did fine it incredible how quickly Peter's buoyancy returned, and we spent a peaceful half hour eating lunch in silence.

Then we drive to our all-but-forgotten road.  Forty-five minutes later, after trudging through foliage that seems even thicker than before, we reach the back of the church. The old wooden door is open, leaning on its single hinge. I feel sure we had done a better job of closing it. Wind? I don't think so. Back in Maine, the days had been hot, dry, and windless. We go inside and I light the lantern. I can't shake the feeling that things aren't right. The kero level in the lantern seems lower than it had been when we left. On top of that, everything seems just slightly out of place. I tell myself I am imagining things, but suspect I am just trying to make things easier for myself.

Peter has brought a crowbar and is able to hoist the door with no problem.  Wasting no time reaching the lower level, we go immediately to the cornerstone. I hold the lantern so Peter can see to slide the bar into a gap on the right hand side. The stone moves easily, and Peter is able to slide it away from the wall. About eighteen inches tall, it obviously hadn't been supporting anything.  It had been standing on a small bed of gravel. I get down on my knees and begin scooping the loose stones away. Three or four inches down the top of an earthenware pot begins to emerge.

"We could use a shovel," I say.

"This will have to do," Peter says as he begins hacking dirt away with the end of his crowbar. It takes us the better part of half an hour, but eventually with him hacking and me brushing away the loose dirt we are able to free the pot. It stands fourteen or fifteen inches high and has inscriptions on two sides. To my untutored eye, the inscriptions are meaningless scribbles.  Peter tries to loosen the top, but it won't budge.

I point at an inscription. "Do you recognize the language?" I ask.

"Greek to me," he says, "or some other equally unrecognizable gibberish."

On impulse, I turn it over and am not at all surprised that there is a hooked X carved into the flat bottom. Peter reaches out and traces it with his forefinger. "Definitely a Templar vessel," he says. "No question about it."

"No doubt all this makes sense to somebody," I say. "Problem is, who?"

Peter shrugs. "Nobody here, that's for sure.  We have to get this back home."

"We could smash it," I say. "See what's inside."

Peter looks doubtful. "I don't want to. Much as I'd like to know what's inside, the pot itself could be valuable. On top of that, smashing it might damage the contents. We'll have to lug it out of here."

"It could be empty," I suggest.

"All the more reason for keeping it intact," Peter replies.

I know the jug would be heavy and difficult to carry, but have no doubt Peter is right. I wrap my arms around it and start toward the back door. Peter seems all too happy for me to take the first shift. I am arm-weary before I get halfway to the car and pass the load over to Peter. He makes it to within fifty or sixty yards of the car before passing it back to me. When we do get it to the car, we wonder how to protect it for the trip back to the airport. Handing me the keys, Peter places it in the back seat and offers to ride reaching back with his left hand holding it in place. He couldn't have been comfortable on the hour-long trip to Halifax, but he never complains.

I worry about clearing customs. No need; Peter knows exactly what he is doing. He tells the inspector that the only thing we're bring back is the antique vase he bought . The inspector seems a bit perturbed that he can't remove the top, but decides to let it go.









CHAPTER TWENTY

"WHAT DO YOU make of these?" I ask Carolyn.

She has met us at the airport in Bangor, and I can't wait to let her examine our jug. I draw her attention to the strange squiggles adorning both sides.

"Have you ever seen anything like them?"

"Actually, I have," she says. "I took a course on the Dead Sea Scrolls and remember seeing similar writing associated with them. I am quite sure it's Coptic, an ancient Egyptian language."

"Can you decipher any of it?"

"No, but I know who can."

"Who?"

"Dr. Sheldon Phillips. Like me, he's an Evangelical, but more importantly he teaches ancient languages at Harvard University. A year ago, he arranged for my group to perform there.Trust me, it isn't easy getting fundamentalist religion onto the Harvard campus. It took us a while to get there, but I've gotta say they seemed to enjoy having us."

"Could you call him?"

She is already twisting the stone on her communicator. "No problem whatsoever," she assures me.

I listen as Carolyn contacts the switchboard at Harvard and asks for Professor Phillips' extension. As luck would have it, he's in his office. I am relieved when he seems to know immediately who she is. She explains how the jar came into our hands and said she is all but sure its inscriptions are in Coptic. Then she was saying he needn't worry, everything would be okay, he could depend on us. Carolyn was nodding her head up and down, as though the professor would find this reassuring. Then Carolyn was saying, "Yes, we would, Definitely, as soon as humanly possible." I was starting to count the number of promises she was making before hanging up.

"He's excited. He says it's within the realm of possibility that the jar could be of considerable importance. He wants us to bring it down to him as soon as we possibly can."

Carolyn and I  look to Peter. He hesitates for half a moment before nodding his head. "I guess the professor probably knows his stuff," he says. "Let's get our jug into professional hands."

Peter goes into the terminal and returns five minutes later. "We're in luck," he says. "A flight leaves for Boston in forty-five minutes. I bought three tickets."

Carolyn calls the professor back and tells him we're on our way. He promises to meet us at Logan. I wonder if he would be taken aback by the rapidity of our response. He did, after all, say soon as possible.

"We need to protect our little treasure on the trip down," I point out.

"No problem," Carolyn says. "I know just what to do." She goes to her car and comes back with a blanket and a roll of duct tape. As carefully as we could, we wrap the jug in the blanket and run a long strip of gray tape around it several times. She looks pleased. "This will fit in the overhead compartment," she notes."If the plane crashes, we might not survive, but our jug probably will."

Our 30-minute flight is uneventful, and Professor Phillips meets us as promised. The professor looks like he has been type-cast for his role. Well into his  seventies, he leaves me wondering if Harvard has a mandatory retirement age. His shaggy, unkempt, once-black hair and beard has turned mostly gray. His spectacles are wire-rimmed, his jacket tweed, his elbow patches brown leather. He is wearing carefully-pressed Wranglers and tattered sandals with clean, white socks.

All but ignoring Peter and me, he greets Carolyn warmly. Shaking her hand in both of his, he says, "I do hope you've been taking good care of that voice of yours. From that mouth came some of the sweetest sounds I've ever heard." Acknowledging us at last, he says, "I hope you fellows are treating this fine young lady with all the deference she deserves."

We drive to his office, which turns out to be in one of the campus's older, ivy-covered buildings. It is on the third floor, and there is no elevator. Peter and I are more winded than he is when, at last, we get inside the small room that serves as his office. The place is fairly bursting at the seams. A large bookcase is packed full, with additional volumes stacked high on top. Several other piles of books are scattered randomly about the room. A pink Imac sits on the desk.  "Ancient languages are low priority at this fine institution," the professor explains.

He switches on overhead florescent lights, shoves the computer aside,  and clears a spot on his paper-cluttered desk as Peter unwraps the Jug.  Then, focusing light from a table lamp on it, the professor removes a magnifying glass from the top drawer of his desk and begins a careful examination. Slowly he rotates the vessel, inspecting each inscription with great care.

"It's Coptic, all right," he finally says to nobody in particular. "Early Coptic, I would say. I recognize  inscriptions for  the words 'gospel,' 'liberation,' 'admiration,' and 'divine.' " He turns the pot over, and on the smooth, clay bottom is a hooked X. "That's odd," he says. "The inscriptions on the sides and the one on the bottom are from different periods. They're at least five-hundred years apart."

Peter loves word games and is good at them. "Gospel, liberation, adoration, and divine. Let's just call them GLAD!"

The professor nods as he looks closely at the lid before trying to twist it off. No go. "They're fused together," he says.  "This commonly happens given enough time interacting with rich soil. We're going to have to smash it."

I look at Peter who seems apprehensive. "There's no other way?" he asks.

"I am afraid not. There is no call for alarm. The jar itself isn't particularly valuable. Thousands of similar earthenware jars have survived from antiquity."

"Okay," Peter says reluctantly. "Do what you have to do."

I don't share Peter's confidence. The professor is into words, not objects. Would he necessarily know how much the pot was worth?

Maybe I should have spoken up, but I didn't. I watch as the professor goes to a closet and comes back with a heavy ball-peen hammer. "I just happen to have an appropriate tool," he says as he gives the jar a heavy whack that splits it into two pieces. "Good clean break," he says.

Lying on the floor between the two sections of pottery is a thick codex. "What have we here?" the professor asks as he picks it up.

Carolyn, excited, is all but jumping up and down. "Could we possibly have discovered an ancient gospel?" she asks. "My gosh, the Dead Sea Scrolls were the archaeological find of the millennium!"

Professor Phillips is far more contained. "There were thirteen of them," he notes. "Far more than a single scroll. Besides, I don't know for sure what we have here. It could well be a modern forgery."

"Modern?" I ask.

The professor smiles as though he is enjoying an academic in-joke. "Anything in the last 500 years is considered modern," he says. "Hot off the press."

"So how do we tell?" Peter asks.

"There are ways," the professor says, "but they all take time."

Peter is an expert at analyzing antique first editions, but has had no experience with ancient manuscripts. "Carbon-dating?" he asks.

"There's that, but there's also syntax analysis along with spectrum analysis of the ink and papyrus. We can tell with great certainty the periods they belong to."

Gently, the professor lifts the cover page. It comes away easily.  "I don't dare go any further," he says.  "If it's genuine it's also delicate and could disintegrate at any time.  It needs to be handled with great care. The pages must be separated cautiously by professionals one at a time. Will you entrust it to my keeping?"

Peter hesitates, then nods. "You're the expert," he says. "I have confidence you'll take good care of it."

"Just remember, we don't know what we have here," the professor cautions. "It could be valuable. It could also be mundane, or even a hoax. Trust me, I won't let anything happen to it.  I'll do everything I can to translate it and report back to you as soon as I can."

Professor Phillips shakes hands with each of us, clinging to Carolyn's hand for three or four extra shakes.  "Do take care now," he says.  "Don't you let these fellows lead you astray."


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