Tuesday, May 29, 2018

Caitlin Hammond: Ghosts From the Past

"What are you two looking at?" I asked the two gawking idiots following my every move in the corridors of the FBI's J. Edgar Hoover Building in DC.

I'm used to men staring at me. I don't do anything to invite it, but they stare anyway. They always have. I may look like a runway model to them, but I'm not hesitant to remind them that I'm a special agent with the FBI. Before that, I was a New York City cop, like my father. But that was a lifetime ago...before 9/11.


I'd like to be able to remember my dad as he looked that sunny Tuesday morning at home. He was smiling, laughing, talking about the family reunion I'd missed that weekend because I was on duty. But the truth is that the last mental image I have of him, the one that will always be burned into my memory, is of the way he looked as we were separated by falling debris trying to get people out of the north tower of the World Trade Center. I went ahead, herding the others outside to safety. I was about to go back for him when I heard a loud roar. The earth shuddered violently seconds before the tower collapsed....  


I realized as I stood there, watching it fall, that my father was dead. There was no way he could have survived that.    


It was six months before I was deemed psychologically fit to return to duty by the FBI's designated shrink, who I came to affectionately refer to as Dr. Douchebag. Yeah, I'm being sarcastic. I hated the SOB. He'd held my future in his hands, and I hated it. I hated not being in control of my own life. Not being in control was frightening. Not being in control had prevented me from saving my father's life. 


I've had to work twice as hard as anybody else since then, had to work my ass off to prove myself. I was damaged goods. I had to prove I wasn't going to cave in if placed in another situation like that on 9/11.  

 
“All of the children in question were conceived by in vitro fertilization,” Jack was saying.


“Coincidence,” I stated more than asked.


“Too many so-called coincidences,” Jack maintained.


“They didn't all conceive through the same clinic,” I reminded him. “What makes you think they’re connected?” I wanted to know.


Jack sucked in a deep breath. “Think about it, Caitlin. It’s too much of a coincidence for all of those kids to be test-tube babies.”


“You’re talking about three abductions in three states at three different clinics here.” I reminded him. “It doesn’t make any sense. Even if you’re right, even if there had been some kind of tampering with the embryos, what reason could there be for all of the kids to be abducted?”


“Destroying evidence, perhaps?”


I was surprised by the suggestion. “You think these kids were taken so there would be no proof of illegal tampering?” I asked. “What do you suggest they’ve done with them—you think they’re dead?”


“Desperate measures,” Jack reasoned. Out of habit, he reached for the cigarettes he’d given up a month earlier, frustrated when he found his pocket empty. 


“I don’t know, Goober—murder to cover something that would be in itself a much lesser charge?” I still wasn’t convinced. 


 He gave up trying—for the moment. “C’mon. Let’s go grab some lunch. I’ll buy.”


I looked at him, my expression sober. “You’ll buy? Is the world about to end or something?” I had to get out of there.


He laughed. “Insulting me won’t get you fed, pardner,” he drawled.


“Let me guess.” I stood up, anxious to go. “The hot dog stand again?” I asked.


“I like hot dogs,” he defended himself. 


“You live on hot dogs, Goober.”


“C’mon, it’s a beautiful day. And you look like you could use some fresh air.” 


He had no idea.

***

“If you believe in God, boy, how can you say you also believe in UFOs?” An old man challenged a young preacher in a group discussion on the Mall. It was unseasonably warm for November, and the people gathered had shed their coats.


The young preacher grinned. He looked more like a hippie than a man of the cloth, with his long hair and worn-out jeans. “What makes you think the two are exclusive of each other?” he wanted to know.


“The Bible says nothin’ about little green men!”


“Means nothing,” the preacher maintained. “The Bible is God’s word to the people of this planet. If he created life here, then who is to say he didn’t create life on some other world? How are we to know there isn’t a race of men—men, not little green creatures—somewhere out there? And how are we to know God didn’t create them millions of years before he created us?”


“You’re talkin’ weird, boy,” the old man scoffed.


“How do you account for the dinosaurs on this planet?” a disbeliever in the group wanted to know.


The young preacher smiled patiently. “Like I said, the Bible only accounts for human history and man’s interaction with God,” he said. “There’s nothing to say the earth wasn’t around long before man—in fact, we know that it was—or that God didn’t play around with his design before he got around to creating us. There’s a passage in the Bible about the Tower of Babel—how God created different languages so we couldn’t communicate with each other. Has it ever occurred to anyone that he might have been doing so to separate people of different planets as well as those of different nations?”


“The Bible says six days! The world was created in six days!”


“Six days in God’s time is probably like six billion years in ours,” the preacher said. “God is infinite, remember? He always was and always will be.”


“What makes you think you know so much?” a young woman challenged.


“I don’t claim to have the answers,” the young preacher defended himself. “These are only my personal theories. I don’t happen to believe faith and science have to be exclusive of each other.”


“Makes sense.”


“You’re sure not like other preachers I’ve heard, boy.”


“Are you listening to this crap?” I asked, parking myself on a bench as Jack paid the vendor for the hot dogs and drinks. ”Now I’ve heard everything.”


Jack sat down on the bench next to me and unwrapped his hot dog, inhaling it at length before taking a bite. “I don’t know what it is about eating hot dogs cooked outdoors, but they taste so much better,” he observed. 


“Can’t you think of anything but your stomach?” I brushed my hair out of my face and continued to watch the group. “That preacher—he looks more like a hippie than a real preacher.” 


“I didn’t think you considered preachers to be real.” Jack popped the ring on his soda can.


“You know what I mean,” I said, annoyed. The breeze kept blowing my hair in my face, making it difficult to eat. I got hair with every bite I took. Of all days for him to want to eat outdoors. “This guy’s claiming God made aliens and sent them here to populate the planet.”


Jack shrugged. “Maybe God is a Scientologist.”


I finished my hot dog. “Or maybe he’s a fraud.”


“God didn’t kill your father, Blondie,” Jack said, watching the young preacher continue to mesmerize the crowd.


“How could he?” I asked. “He doesn’t exist.”


Jack turned to look at me, puzzled. “How can you be so angry at someone you don’t believe exists?” he asked.


I took a deep breath and let it out forcefully. “I’m angry at the lunatics who kill in His name,” I said, crushing my soda can in my hand. The remaining soda inside gushed out, spilling over my hand and my new white slacks. I muttered an expletive and slammed it to the sidewalk in frustration.


Jack said nothing as he picked up the crushed can and tossed it into a trashcan. He knew who I really blamed for my father’s death. I blamed myself.

Tuesday, May 22, 2018

Caitlin Hammond: The Search Begins....

Author's Note: So much for the best laid plans and all that. The plan, specifically, was to do one post on each blog every week...but a little unscheduled flight that ended with a rough and very embarrassing landing put me out of commission for a while. Good thing I just started this blog and not many people know it's here yet! Now, where was I?

***

The woman was hysterical.

Her husband wasn’t in much better shape. He could barely talk, struggling to answer my questions in fragmented sentences. Their six-year-old daughter had been abducted from their backyard. There were no witnesses, and an exhaustive search of the neighborhood turned up nothing.


“I don’t understand how this could have happened,” the child’s father said, choking on every other word. “She only let Mandy out of her sight for a minute.”


He looked over his shoulder at his inconsolable wife, being tended by a neighbor. “She’s always been an overprotective mother,” he said, lowering his voice. “Mandy’s our miracle baby.”


“How so?” I asked, taking notes. In the years I'd been with the FBI, I'd found child abduction cases to be the biggest test of my objectivity. If somebody took my kid, I'd probably hunt them down and kill them. Kidnappers and pedophiles should always be turned over to the parents. The courts might let them go. But you didn't hear that from me.


“We’d been trying to have children for years, almost as long as we’ve been married,” the distraught father went on.  “We both come from big families and wanted kids of our own, but it just wasn’t happening.”


“Is your daughter adopted?” my partner, Jack Farlow, asked.


He shook his head. “No, no,” he said. “She’s ours. We went to a fertility clinic when we couldn’t conceive. It took everything we had, all of our savings, but Mandy’s worth it.”


“You had difficulty in having a child,” Jack said slowly. “Who was at fault?”


The man was at first puzzled, then angry. “What kind of question is that?” he asked. “What has it to do with Mandy being missing?”


“Probably nothing, maybe everything, depending on the circumstances of her birth, sir,” Jack said. “Did you use an egg or sperm donor?”


The man shook his head. “No,” he said. “Mandy’s ours, one hundred percent. She was conceived by in vitro, but we used our own…you know.”


“We have to ask,” I apologized. “If your daughter were not biologically yours, then we would have to consider the possibility that the biological parent might have taken her.”


“We’re her parents, no one else,” the man insisted. His face reflected his deep fear for his child’s safety. “Please bring our baby home. Please.”


***

“I only turned my back for a moment,” the distraught teacher repeated over and over. “I never left the schoolyard!”

A six-year-old boy had been abducted outside a prestigious Seattle school for gifted children. No one saw it happen, even though there were several children in the schoolyard, being picked up by their own parents. Everyone was being questioned.


“We understand, Mrs. Harwood,” I said in an attempt to calm her. 


“I don’t understand!” The emotional outburst came from the child’s mother. “You were responsible for him! You were supposed to be watching him!”


“I was watching him!” the teacher attempted to defend herself. “I was watching all of them! I only turned away for a moment!”


“Long enough for someone to take my son!” the angry mother shot back at her. 


“Easy, Mrs. Wyndham,” Jack urged. “She won’t be able to remember anything if you keep attacking her.”


Charlotte Wyndham turned to the window, hugging herself tightly as if trying to shield herself from the chill of fear that consumed her. Tears streamed down her cheeks. She said her husband was in Paris on business. He’d booked a flight as soon as she called him, but he could not be there before the next morning.

"We only had each other, until Noah was born," she said. "Neither of us have any other family, and we both wanted children. When we couldn't get pregnant on our own, we sought out the experts. It took us three years and thousands of dollars to have Noah, but he's worth every penny. If anything happens to him...."

***

The woman’s body was found in her car, parked in the driveway outside her Florida home. She was still in the driver’s seat, her seatbelt still in place. She’d been shot in the head at close range. Her five-year-old son was missing, presumably taken from his car seat.


We questioned her husband at length. He was frustrated by the endless probing. "My wife is dead, my child is missing. Why are you wasting time questioning me?" he demanded. 


"You found her, sir,” I said. "We have to start there. With you."


“She had no enemies,” he said irritably. “None. She got along with everybody. I always envied that about her. She was the peacemaker. I was the loose cannon.”


“Were you a loose cannon with her, Mr. Reynolds?” Jack asked.


“No, of course not.” Roger Reynolds didn’t miss the implication. “What are you asking me?”


“Only if there were any problems between the two of you.”


“You think I killed her?” Reynolds asked incredulously.


“Did you?”


“No, of course not!”


“What about your son?”


“What about him?”


“Were there any problems regarding the child?” I asked. 


“Don’t be ridiculous!” Reynolds snapped. “Our son was perfect. Perfect.” 



Tuesday, May 8, 2018

Connor Mackenzie: The Voices in My Head

“Egypt?” my stepfather asked, unable to believe what I'd done. 

I shook my head. “We’re realists, Edward, you and I,” I said calmly. “We both know if I stay here, it’s only a matter of time before they find me. If you don’t want to provide the funding, I’m perfectly willing to do it myself. But it will look more legitimate if it comes from the Foundation.”


I stood at the window in Edward’s office, not really paying attention to the view. I was preoccupied with planning my next move. I believed Dr. Raven's need for funding was the answer to my own problem as well as hers. “This is the perfect solution,” I insisted.


My stepfather wasn't yet sold on my proposal. “I suppose,” he conceded. “But to leave now, to go off and live in some desolate place, far removed from civilization—”


“They, too, are staying beneath the radar. Out of necessity,” I said. “Dr. Raven got her permits from the Egyptian authorities under false pretenses. Apparently the last thing the Egyptians want is proof that Moses actually did outwit their ruler.”


Edward still looked unconvinced.


“I’m doing what I have to do,” I maintained. “It will be the last place anyone will be looking.”


“How long?” Edward asked. “How long will you stay there?”


“As long as is necessary.” I picked up a news magazine lying on his desk. It was opened to a story on a racetrack scandal involving a genetically engineered horse. Our horse. I waved it at him for emphasis. “It’s become a witch hunt, Edward. A bloody witch hunt! If they’ve become this fired up over a horse, can you imagine what they’d do if they knew everything we’ve accomplished?” I asked, throwing it back down on the desk. “If anyone were to find out about me—”


“Sarah rang me up earlier. She seems to think you have certain ideas regarding the archaeologist,” Edward said, mildly amused.


I wasn't going to deny it. I did find her quite attractive. The idea of getting her into bed had indeed crossed my mind. “I may need to stay for some time. I might as well make the best of a difficult situation.” I couldn't help smiling at the thought of the possibilities. 


“Are you sure that’s all there is to it?”


“Have you ever known me to lose my head over a woman, Edward?” I asked, feeling a bit insulted.


“Leave it to you to find a way to mix business with pleasure,” Edward observed, lighting his pipe. The scent of his expensive imported tobacco filled the room. 


“You’re not going to fight me on this, are you?” I asked, turning again to face him. “If you have a better solution, I’m willing to listen.”


“No. I don’t,” Edward reluctantly conceded as he drew his pipe from between his lips.


“What about the funding?” I wanted to know.


“Whatever you want. I’ll give you a blank check,” Edward said.


I nodded. “Thank you.”


“You’ll stay in touch?” he asked. “We do have deadlines, people to answer to, you know.”


“Of course,” I said. 


“And you’ll put everything on hold?”


I nodded. “For now,” I said. “Can’t have anyone uncovering the truth before we’re ready now, can we?"


*** 

“Have you ever been here before?” Lynne asked as we stood in line in Customs at the Cairo International Airport. 

It was late afternoon and the terminal was crowded. I wondered how long we'd be kept there. I shook my head. “Never. How far is the excavation site?” I asked, handing my passport to the customs agent.


“A little over two hundred kilometers—on the eastern side of the Sinai peninsula,” she said. “We’re just south of the Jebel Hashem al-Tarif.” 


I opened my carry-on, waiting while the agent inspected the contents. My passport was stamped and I was allowed to move on. Lynne took out her passport and presented it, automatically unzipping her small carry-on for inspection.


“We’re not going to be living in tents, are we?” I asked, an attempt at humor.


Lynne shook her head. “Nothing that luxurious,” she deadpanned.


I looked at her, not sure if she was joking or not.


Once we were finished, we made our way to the baggage carousel to retrieve our checked luggage. Again, there was a large crowd. It was at least fifteen minutes before the bags from our flight started to appear. “That one’s mine,” Lynne told me, pointing to a large bag coming our way on the conveyor. 


As I reached for it, my hand collided with that of another traveler, a young woman who appeared to be in her mid-twenties, attractive, casually dressed. I recoiled, my eyes meeting hers. What I saw there unnerved me. My pulse was racing.


“Sorry,” I said. For some reason, I felt uneasy.


“I am sorry also,” she responded in heavily accented English.


Lynne saw the look on my face. “What’s wrong?” she asked as I passed her bag to her and scanned the carousel for my own.


I shook my head. “Nothing.” I retrieved my bags. “Which way to the taxi stand?”


I couldn’t tell her. I couldn’t tell anyone what I had just discovered...or how. I couldn’t call attention to myself, couldn’t risk exposure….    

***

We checked into a small, seedy hotel in the heart of the city for the night. It was deplorable. I took one look at the yellowed, peeling wallpaper and stained carpet and said, “You should have let me make the hotel reservations.”


“I’ve been on a nonexistent budget,” she reminded me.


“Not anymore.”


When she suggested we have dinner at a pizza parlor on Tahir Square, I thought she was joking at first. “Pizza—in Egypt?” I asked.


“Egyptian pizza,” she said. “Much better than the American knock-offs you might find here.” She looked at her watch. “I have some calls to make. We can meet in the lobby in an hour.”


“Sure.”


I went to my own room, not bothering to unpack. Normally, I would have made sure everything was on hangers in the closet or neatly folded in the drawers before I’d even go to dinner—but here I didn’t want to remove anything from my luggage unless it was absolutely necessary. I wondered if we might be better off with sleeping bags out in the square.


The bugs I killed in the tiny, antiquated bathroom were bigger than any I’d ever seen before. The bed linens were threadbare and the wallpaper splotched with brown stains. Room service was nonexistent. It was a far cry from the accommodations to which I was accustomed.


Things were getting off to a questionable start. I shook dust from a battered pillow, one of two on the bed that were nearly flattened and smelled of sweat. I was nearly choked by the stench. I didn't care to imagine who might have previously slept there.


I rang up Edward and told him about the incident at the airport. “You have to alert the authorities,” I insisted.


“And tell them what?” Edward asked. “That I know there’s a bomb on that plane but I can’t tell them how I know? Do you have any idea how they’ll respond?”


“If that plane takes off, two hundred people will die when it begins its descent to JFK,” I reminded him, stressing the urgency.


“There’s nothing we can do,” my stepfather, always the isolationist, said. 


“You think I’m having seizures again, don’t you?” I asked. I was frustrated.


“How would else you explain it?”


“And if I’m right?” I asked.


“Let’s hope you’re not.”


***

An airliner en route to New York City from Cairo went down over the Atlantic Ocean less than ten miles from JFK International Airport. Reports from ships in the area at the time indicated an explosion had taken place aboard the aircraft. Coast Guard ships searching the debris field held out little hope that any of the twelve crewmembers or one hundred eighty-eight passengers could have survived. According to worldwide media reports, Al Qaeda was taking credit for the disaster.

I hadn't been hallucinating, as Edward had suggested. 


Tuesday, May 1, 2018

Lynne Raven: Science vs. Faith

Dear God, how long has it been? As I stood at the window in my hotel room in London, looking at the city below, I found myself feeling like I'd just landed on another planet. 

I should probably explain. I'm a field archaeologist. Home is wherever I happen to be excavating—at that time, “home” was Egypt. The only people I see on a daily basis are the members of my team. Restaurants, theaters, shopping—all are rare luxuries. My wardrobe is simple and functional, much like everything else in my life.  


As I looked at the royal blue tunic I'd planned to wear that night, I realized I hadn’t worn it in months. It didn’t fit my normal lifestyle. Too feminine for a dig. Thinking about it, I couldn’t remember the last time I’d made the effort to be feminine, to actually look like a woman. I couldn’t remember the last time I’d felt like a woman, the last time I’d wanted to feel like a woman. Feeling and acting like a woman always seemed to get me into trouble. I had discovered long ago that I got on better with people who’d been dead for a thousand years than I did with the living.


I'm not one to spend a lot of time worrying about my looks. For what? I've been divorced over a decade and can't remember the last time I was on a date. I turned forty that summer, but on the good days, I could still pass for thirty. I had fine lines around my eyes—“archaeologist’s squint,” an occupational hazard more than a sign of aging. I haven't changed my hairstyle since college—it's dark and threaded with strands of copper from being out in the sun all day, every day. I know I don’t look my age. But there are times I feel it acutely. I got good genes from my parents. Genes that I haven’t been able to pass on to any children of my own. The thought of the children I’d never have and the family I hadn’t seen in a year brought a wave of unexpected sadness I couldn't shake. It was Thanksgiving in the States. How many years had it been since I’d gone home for Thanksgiving or any other holiday? I told my parents I was too busy, but the truth was that it was too painful to see my three sisters with their children. Seeing what I’d been missing.


I always believed this was the path God had chosen for me. I could never have been satisfied with the life my sisters led back in Missouri. Taking the easy route had never been my style. We all have a purpose. I believed without doubt that mine was to find evidence that would prove the events described in the Bible had actually happened.


As for why I was in London, I hadn’t planned on being here. Three weeks before, I’d been minding my own business, working on my dig in Egypt when that call came, asking me to do a series of lectures in London, to replace a colleague who’d been injured in an earthquake in China. The request surprised the hell out of me, since it came from someone I not only didn’t know well personally, but had been at odds with professionally. What was it Dr. McCallum had called me? Too much of a dreamer to ever be a serious archaeologist. 


Whatever the reason, I wasn’t about to debate the merits of his request. It had been so long since I’d taken any time off from my work, for any reason…and as much as I loved it, I’d been feeling the need for a break for a long time now. It was a feeling I’d never had before, one I was at a loss to explain, even to myself. Work had been my whole life for…how long? Ever since the divorce. 

I was giving serious consideration to adopting a child, maybe two. Not babies. Older kids. Kids who could live the way I live and actually enjoy it. There are lots of kids in the world needing parents. It doesn’t matter if I give birth to my kids or not.


Being in London would hopefully also provide me with an opportunity to seek the funding I needed to continue the dig. Time was running out and I’d already been rejected by the three private foundations that had funded my previous digs. God, I need a miracle, I silently prayed. That’s what it’s going to take if I’m to continue my work—Your work.   

***   

I saw him enter the crowded lecture hall. He was hard to miss. He looked so out of place in the sea of conservatively dressed attendees—but it didn’t seem to bother him. He wore faded jeans and a beat-up black leather jacket. He was with a young woman, a petite brunette who looked as aristocratic as he was scruffy. His light brown hair was in desperate need of a comb. His boredom was evident in his body language, the way he shoved his hands down into the pockets of his jacket. I decided I'd lost my audience before I even got to the podium.


“I fail to see why you couldn’t have come to this event alone, Sarah,” he said, annoyed. “You know quite well that I’ve no interest in spending the evening listening to a decrepit old man talk about life in some desolate outpost of Hades, digging up the pathetic remains of people who lived in another millennium.”


The woman shook her head disapprovingly. “If you had even bothered to read the brochure I gave you, you would know that Dr. Raven is a woman,” she told him.


“No difference,” he said with an offhanded shrug. “Frumpy, gray hair in a schoolmarm’s bun, sensible shoes, no doubt.” He looked at his watch. “I’m going to need a pint—or two—to get me through this evening. I’ll be back. Eventually.” He turned to leave the lecture hall and we were face-to-face. He smiled, and his whole face seemed transformed by it. His eyes, blue and intense, instantly softened. “Hello,” he said in a low voice.


The woman came up behind him. “This is Dr. Raven,” she told him.


He extended his hand to me. “Connor Mackenzie,” he introduced himself. His Scottish brogue was unmistakable. I noticed that he didn’t introduce his date.   


“Lynne Raven.” I shook his hand. “I left my sensible shoes back at the hotel,” I said, feigning regret.


He looked embarrassed. “You heard that?”


I nodded. “I’m afraid so.”


“I’m sorry—”


“Don’t be.” I smiled. “I get it all the time.” It was the truth. People are always surprised when they discover I'm an archaeologist. They always expect us to look and act like Indiana Jones. I do have the hat and the leather jacket, but no bullwhip. I used to wish I'd had one when I was still married. My ex could have benefited from a good whipping.


“I’m not surprised,” he said. “You certainly don’t look like an archaeologist.”


He wasn't expecting Indiana Jones. He was expecting a fossil as old as some of my finds. 


I laughed. “Having heard your description, I’m relieved to hear I don’t look like one to you.” 


He looked me in the eye, which was a little unnerving. “I think you’re quite beautiful,” he said.


I could feel my cheeks flush. I couldn’t remember the last time a man had made me blush. Maybe my ex-husband, but that was another lifetime—one I preferred not to remember. “Good save,” I said, a bit unnerved by the intensity of his stare.


“Are you enjoying your stay in London?” he asked in an awkward attempt at small talk.


“Very much,” I answered, grateful for the change of subject. “I spend most of my time on excavations. This has been heavenly.”


“Where will you go when you leave?” he asked.


“Egypt,” I said. “We’re digging in the Sinai, near the mountain where Moses received the Ten Commandments from God.”


He looked amused. “You don’t really expect to find stone tablets—” he started.


I shook my head. “The tablets were taken to Israel in the Ark of the Covenant,” I explained. “They were still in the Ark when it disappeared from Solomon’s Temple in Jerusalem. It’s been rumored that the Ark’s now somewhere in Ethiopia, but no one’s been able to prove it. Much as I would love to be the one to find the Ark, we don’t expect to find it in Egypt. We are searching for evidence of the Exodus in general.”


He laughed. “Have you found the secret to parting the Red Sea?” he wanted to know.


I didn't hesitate. “Yes. It’s called faith.”


“I’ve heard archaeologists are now using modern technology to aid their work,” he recalled. “Computers, satellites—”


“We do.” I drew in a deep breath, thinking of the equipment I still needed to continue my work. “Unfortunately, it hasn’t helped in this case. We haven’t found anything significant yet. This has turned out to be a long-term project, which means it’s been costly. My funding’s been cut off, and other sources I’ve used in the past have already turned me down. I have to find a new source of funding ASAP. Time is running out, if I’m going to continue my field work.” Why was I dumping this on him? I glanced toward his female companion, who was watching us intently. “I think your girlfriend’s getting the wrong idea.”


“She’s not my girlfriend,” he said. “She’s my sister.”


Only then did I realize that he was still holding my hand. I withdrew it slowly.


“Have you eaten?” Connor asked.


I shook my head. “I’m beat. I thought I’d just get some Chinese takeout after I’m finished here and call it a night.”


He laughed. “A rare trip to the civilized world and you plan to spend the evening in your hotel room? That’s unacceptable.” he said. “Come have dinner with me.”


“I don’t think so—” I started.


“I may be able to save your project,” he suggested. 


I was more than a little skeptical. “How?” He didn’t look like he had enough cash to pay for dinner. Except for the watch. The watch he wore looked very expensive. He probably stole it. Or so I thought at the time. 


He winked, lowering his voice to a conspiratorial whisper. “My trust fund,” he told her.


I nodded slowly. “Right.”


He wasn’t about to give up. “I could surprise you. What have you to lose by hearing me out?” he asked.


I hesitated for only a moment. “All right,” I said finally. Even if he didn’t have the means to save the excavation, there was something so compelling about him, I couldn’t refuse. I didn’t want to refuse.


God help me, I was thinking.

***

He came up to the podium while I was talking to a small group of academics after the presentation. He edged his way into the group and leaned in close enough to whisper in my ear, “I’ll be waiting for you outside.”


I nodded. “I’ll only be a few minutes.”


He strode off with a swagger that inspired thoughts I didn’t want to be having, especially about a man I’d just met. I watched him leave the lecture hall, only half-listening to the aging paleontologist from Oxford who was rambling on in a monotone that would have put me to sleep, had my thoughts not been elsewhere. As soon as I could graciously extract myself, I grabbed my coat and headed for the exit.


I had no trouble finding him outside. He was standing next to a Harley Davidson, two helmets in hand. “Here,” he said, tossing one to me. “Put this on.”


I was speechless for a moment. “I don’t think so,” I finally managed to say.


He laughed. “Chicken?” he asked.


“I beg your pardon?” I was indignant.


What did he have in mind? I wasn’t about to ride off on a motorbike with some man I’d just met, not even this one. 


“I said, are you afraid to ride with me?” His blue eyes were taunting. “You needn’t be. I’m quite a safe biker. At least I am when I have a passenger aboard.”


“Oh, I’m sure you are.” I wasn't unconvinced. 


There was a chill in the air. I stood there, hugging myself. I could see my breath. How long was I going to allow the debate to continue? Finally, I slipped my coat on. As I did so, I glanced toward the security guard near the doors. The man regarded me with a look that left no doubt in my mind that he’d gotten the wrong idea about what was going on between myself and Connor.


“Get that bloody helmet on and come on.” Connor was growing impatient. He put on his own helmet and gestured to me again to get on the bike. 


The man was challenging me! He had nerve, I’d give him that. Impulsively and against my better judgment, I rose to the challenge, I tucked my hair behind my ears and pulled on the helmet. I climbed aboard the bike with him.


“Where’s your sister?” I asked, remembering he hadn’t come alone.


“Sarah? She brought her car. She had to go back to the station.”


“Station?” I asked.


“She’s a television journalist.” 


“Do you really have the means to help me get funding?” I asked then. “Or are you just coming on to me?”


“Both.” He started the engine. He said something else, but I couldn’t hear him above the Harley’s roar. I hung onto him as he raced the bike through the streets of London, wondering what I’d gotten myself into. 


I felt like a moth who’d flown dangerously close to a flame....

***

We ended up at a small, casual Chinese restaurant near Regent’s Park. “You mentioned getting takeout,” he said, holding the door for me. “I hope not being able to eat out of the cartons won’t be too much of a disappointment.”


“I think I can live with it,” I said. We took a booth at the back of the dining room that came as close to privacy as the restaurant afforded. He slid into the booth across from me and picked up two menus. I took the menu he offered me and scanned it quickly. 


“Do you know what you want?” he asked.


I could feel my cheeks flush. He’s talking about food, you idiot, I mentally scolded myself. “Yes,” I said, keeping my eyes fixed on the menu. “I’ll have the cashew chicken.”


I noticed a folded newspaper lying on the seat next to me. I picked it up. It was folded, a story on stem cell research facing out. I shook my head. I may be, as an archaeologist, considered a scientist, but I'm also a Christian, a pastor's daughter. And no matter what my parents think, my faith remains strong.  Some things are just morally wrong. 


Connor regarded me with curiosity. “What is it?” he asked.


I showed him the newspaper. “You’re opposed to medical research?” he asked, surprised.


“Not at all—but they won’t be satisfied with that,” I predicted. “They’ll want to clone human beings. Man has always had a yearning to play God.”


“Do you not think it’s possible that this could benefit mankind?” he asked. “Science is on the brink of eradicating illness, improving mental ability and physical prowess. Is that not a good thing?”


“No,” I answered without reservation. “We don’t have the power or the right to artificially create life.”


“Obviously, we do,” he disagreed, taking the paper from me. “Science is going to change the world, you know.”


I disagreed. “Then maybe we need to change the scientists,” I suggested.


I could tell he was trying not to laugh. “Change the scientists?”


I nodded. “They may be able to create the physical body, but they can’t create a soul,” I maintained. “Are you at all familiar with any of the ancient religions?”


He pursed his lips as if considering the question. “No. Can’t say that I am.”


“According to the ancient Jewish mystics, the Guf—the Hall of Souls—holds a finite number of souls,” I explained, toying with a bottle of soy sauce absently.  “When a child is born, the soul descends from Heaven to enter the physical body. In the case of a stillbirth, no soul comes. The mystics believed when the Guf is emptied, the Messiah will come. Each birth would bring the Messiah’s arrival closer.”


He looked amused. “And do you believe this also?” he wanted to know.


“I believe there’s some truth to it,” I acknowledged.  “I believe the Messiah will return when the Hall is emptied.”


“Perhaps your God intended us to create bodies for those souls waiting in the well,” Connor suggested in a mocking tone. “Heaven could be outsourcing.”


I held my tongue, just in case he could help me secure funding for the dig.


He waved to the waitress, who came with water and took our order, then made a quick exit. I took a deep breath and approached the topic I really wanted to discuss with him. “How can you help me get my funding?” I asked. 


He smiled. “You get right to the point, don’t you?” 


“I can’t afford not to,” I said honestly. “The clock is ticking. I don’t have much time. If I’m to stay in Egypt, I have to do something yesterday. If you’ve been putting me on—”


“I haven’t,” he assured me. “My stepfather is founder and chairman of Icarus International. Ever heard of it?”


I nodded. I was vaguely aware of it. “Pharmaceuticals, medical research....”


“The Phoenix Foundation, our philanthropic division, gives millions to various worthwhile projects every year. We can fund your work for the next five years.”


“Why?” I wanted to know. There had to be a catch.  


He leaned forward and grinned. “Why not?” he countered.


I took a drink, stalling while I searched for a diplomatic way to say what I was thinking, just in case he really was sincere. “You don’t give me the impression you even believe in what I’m doing in the Sinai,” I said finally. “Why would you care if I can continue my work or not?”


“Consider it a challenge,” he said. “You believe, I don’t. Prove me wrong.”


I was almost amused. “You’d be willing to risk all that capital to be proven wrong?” 


He shrugged. “For one thing, it’s not my money. And for another, I think this might prove a most interesting experience.” 


A rich man looking for a diversion, I decided. Well, if he was willing to provide it, I was willing to take it. I couldn't afford to be proud. It wasn't like I had any other options. Aloud I said, “Right. You just surprised me, that’s all. I need to submit a proposal—”


“That’s not necessary,” he said. “You have me to present your case.”


“It can’t be that easy,” I said, unable to believe I could leave London with funding for the next five years, just like that. 


“It is. Edward will do this if I ask him.” He put his hand on mine. His touch made me feel odd, but not in a bad way. There was something strangely familiar about it. I withdrew my hand slowly.


“Why?” I asked again. “Of course I’m grateful—”


“Grateful enough to put up with me for a time?” he asked, his eyes meeting mine.


“Put up with you?” I asked, immediately suspicious. There it was. I knew there would be strings attached. “What, exactly, does that mean?”


He leaned back and regarded me in a way that made me feel as though I was being appraised. “I’m interested in what you do. I’d like to see it firsthand. Is that so hard to believe?” he wanted to know.


“Would you be coming along to oversee your stepfather’s investment, then?” I asked, bracing myself for an ultimatum I was pretty sure I wasn’t going to want to hear.


“Not at all,” he said. “Call it curiosity. It would only be for a brief time.”


I hesitated momentarily. Confession time. “The Supreme Council of Antiquities in Egypt doesn’t know why we’re really there,” I reluctantly revealed. “The Exodus is a touchy subject. To prove that it actually happened would be to reinforce Israel’s claims in the territory.”


“Are their suspicions not aroused by the location of your site?” he asked.


“No.” I took a deep breath and went on. “You see, the reason no proof has been found so far is that the so-called experts have the dates and locations all wrong. Traditionally, it’s been believed that Moses’ royal adversary was Ramses II—but I’m part of a very small minority that believes the Pharaoh the Bible actually refers to is Ahmose I—who reigned two hundred years earlier. I’ve been studying the Exodus for most of my professional life, and all of my research points to Ahmose. I believe I’m on the right track. My benefactors think otherwise. So when we failed to make a find, they pulled the plug on me.”


Connor lit a cigarette. “But the mountain, surely.”


“They had the wrong mountain,” I said, confident in my theory. “I believe that the actual mountain of God is the Jebel Hashem al Tarif—it’s right on the main Sinai highway, forty-five kilometers from Taba. It fits all the information provided in Scripture much more closely than does the Jebel Musa.”


“And the Red Sea?” he asked. 


“Mistranslated. Yam Suf in Hebrew means reed sea, not Red Sea.” I paused. “So we got our permits to dig under false pretenses. We told them we were looking for artifacts relating to Ahmose’s reign. Even then, it took us a year to obtain them. We’ve had to be cautious. There’s a military installation close to the mountain. I feel like they’re always looking over our shoulders.”


“I see.” He was silent for a moment. “Well, I’m still willing to secure your funding, if you agree to my terms.”


I still had reservations, but he was my only hope of saving the dig now. “You have a deal, Mr. Mackenzie,” I agreed.


“It’s Connor,” he said as the waitress returned and placed our plates in front of us. He reached for one of the two cellophane-wrapped fortune cookies. “Let’s see what the future holds, shall we?” He removed the wrapper and broke the cookie in half. He stared at the small slip of paper for a moment, then started to laugh. “It looks as if I have no future.”


I took it from him. It was blank. “Maybe,” I said, “it means your future can’t be revealed to you yet."  


Tuesday, April 24, 2018

Alex Stewart: The Stranger in the Mirror

I didn’t go to the funeral. I couldn’t. I thought about it as I stepped up to the front door of the house in which I’d grown up. I couldn’t go there and act like I really mourned that bastard. The only regret I had was that it didn’t happen much sooner. 

I fished the key from my pocket and unlocked the door, entering with mixed feelings. I promised myself I’d never come back here. I wouldn't have, while he was still alive. I wish I could say I had some good memories of the place, but any that might have existed were so few and so long ago, they'd ceased to matter.


The letter I'd received from the lawyer representing his estate said I was his sole heir. Everything had been left to me. Still, I was surprised. I'd always assumed he'd leave it all to strangers before he'd leave it to his only child, the son who had been such a disappointment to him. 


I looked around the foyer. Nothing had changed. I ran my hand along the banister at the bottom of the staircase. Except maybe the dust. The old germophobe would have a stroke if he could see that.


I went to the old man’s study. There were two walls of bookshelves--mostly related to his work. There were framed documents, all recognitions of his accomplishments. There were no personal mementos, no family photographs. It wasn't Joseph Sadowski's style.  The only thing that ever mattered to the old bastard was his work. 


I pushed the familiar feelings of resentment aside. I hadn’t come back here to revisit the past. That was the last thing I wanted. The old man was gone now, and truth be told, I was glad.  I would take what I wanted, then instruct the lawyer to dispose of whatever remained and sell the house. The sooner I could leave here, the better. There were no happy memories for me here. I'd grown up with a father who treated me like one of his experiments and a mother who had abandoned me.


Not the sort of thing one wants to remember.


The old SOB always had cash in the safe. That made about as much sense as everything else he did. I paused to recall the combination, then opened the safe and found an envelope that contained a stack of large bills. I tucked it into my backpack and turned my attention back to the safe. You owe me, Joseph. This won’t begin to cover the debt, but I’ll take it anyway. Maybe the sale of the house will compensate me for a lifetime of hell.


There was also a small case containing half a dozen flash drives and memory cards, several DVDs and some handwritten journals. Funny that he'd continued to keep handwritten notes and journals. It was one of his many quirks.


I took out one of the videos and read the label. Boston In Focus. It was a local TV news program. Curious, I slipped it into the DVD player and hit Play. It was the old man, being interviewed by Emma Scott, a well-known Boston TV journalist. He was his usual arrogant, boring self, droning on about himself and his work, until....


"We have the technology to clone Jesus Christ."


Emma Scott was speechless. "I'm not sure I heard you correctly," she said aloud, trying in vain to cover her uneasiness.


"I said, Ms. Scott, that if the Shroud of Turin is authentic, a blood sample taken from it could be used to clone Jesus Christ." He made the statement as matter-of-factly as if he were discussing plans for the weekend. 


“Do you believe in God, Dr. Sadowski?” she asked.


"I'm a man of science, Ms. Scott," he answered. "I believe what I can see, what can be proven."


"And by cloning Jesus Christ—"


"Perhaps then, we would have proof."


***


I leafed through the journals. They were predictable accounts of his inability to understand how mere mortals could not see the magnitude of his genius, of all he had to offer mankind....


My statements have caused a furor that have sent shock waves throughout a cynical world in which claims of cloning human beings have become as commonplace as tales of alien abduction. I am genuinely surprised by the overwhelming—and all too often angry—response. Can’t they see how my work would eventually benefit mankind? Are they really so narrow-minded?


I wasn’t prepared for how the public outcry would impact my life and my work, however. The small-mindedness of the general population always amazes me....


That was just the beginning.  Within forty-eight hours, all but one of my private benefactors have withdrawn their research funding, and I’ve learned that I am being investigated by the FDA. The FDA has left me alone for years, thanks to the large contributions certain congressmen have received from the corporations that bankroll my research. But now, because of one statement I made in a TV interview…I’d forgotten how foolishly sentimental human beings can be when it comes to religion.


Then came the call from my attorney….


I’m a laughingstock.


Less than forty-eight hours have passed since the airing of the World Focus interview.  In forty-eight hours, I’ve gone from being one of the most respected scientists in my field to being the butt of stand-up comics’ jokes and the target of every religious fanatic in the free world.  My entire future is in jeopardy. I’m getting death threats. And now, as if that weren’t enough, the government is investigating me. 


I can't believe it. I’m going to lose everything.  Everything I’ve spent my life working to achieve is about to be taken from me, and there’s nothing I can do to stop it.  Even my teaching position is lost to me now.


I will never understand how intelligent, educated human beings can allow themselves to be bullied by those right-wing religious zealots.  I hadn’t even said I intended to clone Christ—only that it could be done.  How foolish would it have been for me to state such intentions publicly? And they reacted as if I’d committed a capital crime! I don’t know which I resent more, the criticism or the jokes.


They wouldn’t laugh if they knew the truth, if they knew just what I and my team have actually accomplished. 


***


I was going to dispose of the flash drives and memory cards, but had second thoughts as I took aim on the wastebasket next to the desk. I'd never cared about his precious work, but one of the memory cards had my name on it. I wondered why.


I turned on the computer, the one I'd never been allowed to touch while the old man was alive, then removed that card from the case and put it into the appropriate port on the computer. The files appeared on the monitor almost immediately. I opened them, one by one. It was all gibberish to me. Notes from the old man‘s work. Hard to believe that SOB was a genius, I thought. What does this have to do with me?


Then something caught my eye. One of the files did bear my name. I clicked on it and opened it. At first, it made no sense. Then I saw the words that in seconds turned my entire life into a lie…. 


***


I couldn't even stay in the house overnight. Too many ghosts. Too many secrets. Too many lies. Especially now. Instead, I checked into a hotel downtown—but even there, sleep was impossible. I lay awake all night, thinking, unable to stop thinking about what I'd seen on the old man's computer. Had I misunderstood? I'm no scientist. I don't understand the technical language. But one word kept jumping out at me, a word with enormous implications for me. That one word changed everything. If it was true, I was little more than Frankenstein's monster.


It felt like a cruel joke. But Joseph Sadowski didn't have a sense of humor, not even a perverse one. He was an arrogant man who believed himself to be above ordinary human beings, a man who did not have to respect the law or the rights of others. He had made a marriage of convenience with a woman in whom he had no interest, physical or emotional, while maintaining an apartment he used for sexual encounters with young women he coerced into bed. He thought anyone who opposed his unorthodox experiments was stupid and should stay out of matters they couldn't possibly understand. 


Me? I felt like I was trapped in a bad sci-fi movie. None of it felt real....


***


The next day, I went to see the attorney representing the old man's estate. Rodney Alcott III was a short, balding, myopic man in his late forties with a perpetual twitch. He looked like he'd been gene-spliced with a rat. Maybe he was one of dear old Dad's lab experiments gone wrong. 


I had a hard time following the conversation. I found myself staring, wanting to offer him some cheese. Then I reminded myself that I was the real freak in that room.


“There were no other heirs,” Alcott explained as I leafed through the pages of the will, not really understanding the legalese, not really caring what it meant. The old man could have willed me the moon and it would not have made up for what he'd done to me.
“Your father left everything to you.”


My father. What a joke. “What about my mother?” I asked aloud. “She's not dead—just smart enough to get as far away from him as she could.”


“We don't know if she's dead or not,” Alcott said, tapping a pen nervously on the desk. “But your father had her declared legally dead last year.”


I don't know why that surprised me. “Without being certain?” I asked.


“For estate purposes,” Alcott said.


“Of course,” I said, not bothering to put a lid on the sarcasm. “After all, he only married her for the trust fund. Why wouldn't he rush the death certificate to finally get control of it?”


“I'm sure he loved both of you in his own way.”


I almost choked. “Love wasn't in his vocabulary, Mr. Alcott,” I told him. “If he ever loved anyone, it would have been the bastard he saw in the mirror every morning.”


Alcott tried to stay composed. “The house, the assets, everything is now yours,” he said. He was twitching like crazy.


“Sell the damn house,” I told him, “and everything in it.”


He looked surprised. “You don't want to live there?”


“No way.” I stood up and dropped the will on the desk. “I left there ten years ago to get away from that house of horrors. I don't care if I ever see it again.”


“And the personal effects?” he asked. 


I shrugged. “Have a yard sale. Sell all of it. There's nothing there I'd want.” I flipped the will face down and wrote my address in Paris on it. Pay the bills, take your astronomical fee, whatever it is, and send the rest to me at this address. Just make sure I never have to come back here, okay?”


***


I walked alone through the cemetery, not sure exactly where the old man had been buried. It took me almost half an hour to find the grave, even with the directions I received from the caretaker. “I’ll bet you’d be surprised to see me here, wouldn’t you, Father?”  I asked aloud, studying the grave marker dispassionately. “To be honest, I’m surprised to be here. Never thought I’d ever come back.  Sure didn’t plan on it.”


I knelt by the grave. “Thanks to you, I don’t have a family, don’t belong anywhere.  You never even told me who my biological father was.”  I was silent for a moment.  “People like me only have one true parent, don’t they?”


I found it appropriate that the marker bore only his name, date of birth and date of death.  “No ‘beloved husband and father,’ no sentimentality.  I know how you would have hated that,” I said, as if he could hear me.


“So how do I find out where I came from, old man? You destroyed most of your records--and what you didn’t shred, the authorities seized. Anybody who might have known has either been arrested or has dropped off the face of the earth.”  I took a deep breath. “Andrew knew, didn’t he?  Of course—Andrew always knew everything. You let him in on all of your experiments.


“What about Mother—Dorothea?”  I asked.  “Did she know the truth? Would she be able to tell me?”


I stood up again.  “If I were to make any bets, I’d say Andrew was more likely to know the truth.  Problem is, I have no idea where your favorite son has gone.”


I forced a smile. “Hate to cut this short, Dad, but I have no desire to end up a lab rat—and I’m pretty sure if they find me, they’re not going to just let me ride off into the sunset. They’ll probably dissect me to see if I’m really human. No, thanks. See you in hell.”


***


That night, I was on a flight back to Paris. I'd booked a round trip, never having had any intention of staying for more than a couple of days. As the plane climbed high in the sky over the Atlantic Ocean, I found myself thinking about the first time I ran away to Paris....


“Absolutely not!” The old man had exploded when I told him I wanted to be an artist, that I wanted to live in Paris and study art at the Sorbonne. “No son of mine is going to throw his life away on such foolishness!”


Dorothea had tried to intervene. “Joseph, if this is what he wants—”


“This is your fault!” he shouted at her. “Always dragging him to museums and galleries, even when he was too young to understand what he was seeing!”


“He's actually quite talented. All of his instructors think he's gifted.”


“Yes, he is gifted,” he said. For the first time, I thought he might surrender. "He is a genius. He is meant for more important things. Science. He will be my protege."


"I flunked biology in high school," I reminded him. I didn't give a rat's ass about any kind of science. I wanted no part of anything he cared about. Didn't he realize that? I'd spent my teenage years with long hair, riding a motorcycle, smoking pot—anything I knew would piss him off.


"You haven't applied yourself," he insisted. "Your mother fills your head with fantasies."


"I'm going to be a painter," I said, refusing to let him get to me. With or without his blessing, I was going to Paris. I wanted it even more now that I knew how much he hated the idea.


Dorothea came to me later, alone. It was that night I discovered that it was she who held the financial reins in their marriage.  She gave me the money to pursue my dream....


***

Dorothea had been a good mother. She'd loved me...right up to the day she disappeared. 


For years, I wondered if the old man had killed her and disposed of her body. I knew the truth about their sham of a marriage. My so-called father had married her for her money.  He'd married her for a green card.  He had come to the US from Poland with a brilliant mind but no money, no prospects. He was about to be deported when he met her, the shy, plain daughter of wealthy parents desperate to find her a husband.  A deal was made. He would marry her and produce at least one grandchild. He kept his end of the deal, and my birth made him a very wealthy man. Too bad my grandparents—Dorothea's parents—never knew they'd been duped.

I never understood until that day why she left us—left me. Now it all made sense. She'd discovered the truth.