Wednesday afternoon Irene was puttering about in the kitchen when she heard a knock on the door. Drying her hands on her apron, she went to see who was there. It was Maddy, standing there with a man Irene didn't recognize.
"Maddy, do come in, please."
She entered and gave Irene a hug. The gentleman followed her in and stood silently behind her.
"Irene, I'd like you to meet Evan Taylor. Evan, this is Irene Summerfield, the lady I've told you so much about."
Irene offered her hand, which Evan took in a firm handshake. "How delightful to meet you, Mrs. Summerfield."
"Oh, please call me Irene. And it's so nice to meet you, Evan. Please, sit down you two," and Irene motioned toward the sofa.
They crossed the room, and Maddy gracefully sat down. Evan remained standing and smiled pleasantly at Irene. Somewhat mystified, Irene just stood there until it dawned on her what he was waiting for. In a flutter she plunked herself down in the nearest chair. Evan then sat next to Maddy.
"Well. You must have just gotten home, dear. Tell me about the convention. Did you have a good time? Were you there too, Evan?"
He politely waited for Maddy to begin, and when she had finished, he offered his own observations. "Of course, the best part was meeting Maddy."
She smiled shyly at him. "Evan is going to be spending a few days in Minneapolis before he heads back home to Boston."
"Well, it sounds like you both had a wonderful time. I hope you're not in a hurry, are you? I have a freshly baked pie that I'm simply dying for someone to try. How about a piece? It's one that I'm thinking of entering in the county fair pie contest this month." Irene laughed softly. "I'm hoping to win another blue ribbon, Evan."
He looked at her with interest. "Yes, I would definitely like to try some. You know, Irene, I'm a bit of a pie connoisseur, if I should say so myself. Perhaps you would allow me to give you a hand?" He looked at her with his eyebrows slightly raised.
"Yes, I'd appreciate that. Maddy dear, perhaps you wouldn't mind clearing some room on the dining room table for us."
She jumped to her feet, "No, not at all."
Evan offered his hand to Irene as she arose from her chair. In a minute they returned from the kitchen carrying the pie and place settings. Irene put them out on the table while Evan went back to the kitchen for a pitcher of water.
"You can go ahead and cut the pie, Maddy," Irene said with a smile.
In less than fifteen seconds Evan was back and filled the glasses, and after pulling out Irene's and Maddy's chairs for them, he took his place at the table.
"Evan, please go ahead. I'm sort of anxious to see what you think."
"All right," he agreed with a twinkle in his eye. Picking up his fork, he cut off the pointed end of the pie and with a serious look inspected it. "Definitely a pumpkin pie. Nice even color, firm texture. Unusual crust!" he said, looking at Irene in pleasant surprise. He passed the fork under his nose and took in the aroma. "A pecan crust? How imaginative!" He looked at her again with undisguised admiration. Several more seconds passed in close examination. "Not only pumpkin. I perceive a thin layer of chocolate on top of the crust. Very unusual indeed. I love chocolate. But there's something else mixed in with it." Irene and Maddy watched him intently while he sniffed again. "Rum! Is that it, rum?"
Irene nodded. "Yes," she said, "there's the faintest trace of rum in the chocolate. Go ahead, taste it."
Seconds seemed like minutes as he took his time. He put his fork down and turned to Irene. "Irene, this is a heavenly pie. Most delicious. I don't believe I've ever had a pumpkin pie quite this good in all my travels. That layer of creamy dark chocolate adds the perfect amount of decadence. It's easy to see that you enjoy baking and have quite a flair for it too!"
With such sincere praise, Irene couldn't help but break out into a big smile. "Then you like it? Do you think there's a chance it might win?"
"I love it. It has a wonderful chance of winning."
Leaning forward, Irene spoke in a quiet voice. "Being a world traveler like you are, is there maybe something you would add to make it even better?" She looked at him with a glimmer of expectancy.
Evan thought for a moment with his chin resting in his hand. Then leaning toward her, he answered in the same quiet voice. "You might try adding just a drop of almond extract to the pecan crust." And he gave her a roguish wink.
Irene sat back, all smiles, and picked up her fork. Maddy looked at Evan tenderly, and with a laugh she took her napkin and placed it in her lap. In obvious delight, Evan ate his pie.
* * * * * * * * * *
Jeff had no trouble keeping both the Mercedes and Lexus in view. The day had dawned crisp and cool with all traces of stale air washed away by the rain, and Jeff was in high spirits. He felt alert and whistled a happy tune, this in spite of the fact that he had gotten virtually no sleep.
It had been a night of fitful snoozing. His 6'1" frame didn't fit easily into the back seat, so he had sat up most of the night in the passenger seat. The back reclined, and with the seat pushed back all the way, he had managed a few hours of light sleep intermixed with sporadic dreams of Maddy.
Maddy. Jeff was extremely fond of her. Did he love her? He wasn't sure, but he thought so. Could they be happy together? Definitely. She had a bright and sunny disposition and was liked by everybody. With a striking figure, beautiful auburn hair, and compelling green eyes, she was beautiful. But it was her inside beauty that drew Jeff. Maddy truly cared about people, always placing their needs ahead of her own. She never felt the least bit envious or slighted when praise came to another, nor did she seek any laurels for herself. If she could provide the means for another to stand in the limelight, she did so wholeheartedly. With an unshakable belief that hard work provided its own satisfaction, Maddy resolved to do her best no matter what the endeavor.
They had dated frequently over the past few years. In fact, Jeff had never dated anyone else, had never even thought of it. Maybe that was because he really didn't know anyone else, and, even if he did, would any girl really be interested in dating him? He thought not. He had known Maddy all his life, living next door like he did, and everybody took it for granted that they would some day marry. Did she ever date anyone else? he wondered. She could have her choice of any guy, Jeff knew that. But she seemed to have set her heart on him. He couldn't fathom why.
While he was daydreaming of Maddy, the Mercedes' turn signal came on and the car veered onto the ramp for a rest area. The Lexus, not too far behind, did likewise. Jeff followed at a safe distance. Not wanting to be seen by either, he parked a good ways off and hustled to the restroom. Karen and Antonio, who had parked much closer, were already inside. So was the Lexus man.
The facilities were rather crowded, and for this Jeff was grateful. He washed his hands, noticing in the mirror what a sorry sight he presented. His face looked haggard, his chin was stubbly, and his hair smushed up on one side. He ran his fingers through it a couple times. Better, he thought. After splashing a few handfuls of water on his face, he left for the refreshment area.
The Lexus man was there looking through a handful of change for the right coins to buy a snack. He looked up and saw Jeff. "You wouldn't have change for a $5 bill by any chance, would you? Maybe some quarters?" he politely inquired.
Jeff pulled out his wallet and looked inside. "No, I'm sorry, but I'm afraid I don't. How much are you short?"
"Well, a couple quarters would do it, but I hate to take yours."
"No, it's quite all right. Please don't give it another thought," and Jeff reached into his pocket and brought out a handful of change. He handed the man two quarters.
Looking somewhat embarrassed, he took them with a grateful, "Thanks a lot."
The man started inserting coins into the slot. As Jeff turned to leave the area, he bumped into a man coming around the corner of the pop machine. "Oh, excuse me," Jeff blurted. "Sort of clumsy this morning I'm afraid." It was Antonio.
"No harm done, forget it." He smiled at Jeff and started dropping coins into the pop machine. Jeff looked back to see what the Lexus man would do upon seeing Antonio, but the man had disappeared. Jeff couldn't see him anywhere. How could he have gotten away so fast? he wondered.
Looking at the snack machine and feeling a bit self-conscious, Jeff pulled the lever for a bag of Lay's potato chips. To his surprise, out it came. He returned to the car, and fumbling around behind the seat, found an empty pop bottle which he filled with water at the drinking fountain. "This should hold me for awhile," he said to himself.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Georgia state line was a couple hours away. The day had passed uneventfully for the most part, and it was now getting rather late.
"Antonio, would you mind if we got a motel for one more night? I hate to barge in on Patsy and Max when it's so late."
"Not at all, I understand perfectly. We'll get off at this next exit. There's a Holiday Inn there."
Once situated in their rooms, Antonio suggested something to eat. "How about if I run out and get a pizza? I'm famished. We'll have it whatever way you like."
"Oh, that would be great," Karen answered cheerfully. "I love pizza. My favorite is pepperoni, onions, green peppers, and pineapple, but if you don't like it that way, we'll change it. I wouldn't want you to have to eat something you really didn't like. Maybe half and half, what do you think?"
Laughing, he bent over and gave her a quick kiss. "Not a chance. I like it that way too. There's a Dominos just across the road, I won't be long."
* * * * * * * * * *
The Lexus had driven past the entrance to find a parking spot in a secluded corner. Once Dr. Richardson was sure he wouldn't be spotted by Antonio, he entered the motel and secured a room. Returning to his car, he drove to the nearest convenience store. Inside he filled a small hand basket with a few items: a bag of throw-away razors, a six-pack of Sprite, and a sandwich. How he wished they carried some Hanes or Fruit of the Loom shorts and shirts. He had washed out his meager wardrobe at the Summit, but he was once again out of clean underwear and didn't want to start doing laundry at this late hour.
Dr. Richardson made his way back to the car and got in, rolling down the window for some fresh air. He opened a can of Sprite and set it in the drink holder. Picking up his cell phone, he looked around the lot to see whether anyone was within earshot. Nobody was visible, and there were no cars close by except for one two spots to his left, an old but carefully maintained blue Cutlass. It was empty. Dr. Richardson gave the car a second, approving look.
"Ben, it's me. Were you sleeping?...Sorry. Forgot about the different time....Yeah, I've heard over the radio that they're all still hunkered down out there and getting madder by the minute. Has anyone made any pretense at all of starting a dig?...No, he's never even tried to call me. Either he got cold feet or has something else planned. I guess you were right when you told me not to trust him." Several minutes elapsed while Dr. Richardson listened and gazed around the lot.
"We have another problem. I've discovered that Antonio is keeping an eye on a girl from Lynley. He's traveling with her now for a visit to her sister and brother-in-law. You'll never guess who this brother-in-law is. Jonathan Maxwell Devlin...Yeah, that's the guy. Has more degrees than you can shake a stick at. Well, I've discovered this girl has the most important page of the research, and I have the feeling that Antonio has not let on that he wants it. Evidently all Savarin's papers are back in Hampton Heights with the exception of this one page, and almost definitely it's the most important one of all, the one with the key for breaking the code. If that's the case, we might not need all the research but only the last few pages. Antonio's probably got the bulk of it squirreled away somewhere in his apartment. But we can give more thought to that later. Right now our main problem is going to be with Devlin. We're not far from the Georgia border, so late tomorrow morning the three of us will most likely be there."
Dr. Richardson waited patiently for Ben to respond to this news. "Yeah, I know. He'll recognize it right away. But then what will he do with it? I can't imagine him letting all those poor schmucks just sit around in Gaziantep, can you?...I think she has it in her purse. It's a big voluminous thing and she keeps a tight grip on it....No, I can't do that! I'm not some kind of a mugger you know! And I am not going to search her room, so don't even suggest it. For the time being, all I can do is follow them and play it by ear....Yes, I know that. It's on every station. But since I'm not the one who let the word out, don't blame me. It probably was that Andreas, did you ever think of that? I never did like him, that slick weasel....Yeah, yeah, I know. He's your wife's sister-in-law's great nephew or some such thing. Anyway, I'll get back to you. Bye."
* * * * * * * * * *
"So that's what Antonio's trying to steal!" Jeff exclaimed to no one in particular as he sat up in the back seat.
Jeff had followed the Lexus into the motel lot and had watched while the driver entered the motel. But feeling hungry, he had continued on to the nearby convenience store where he took a spot on the side of the building near the trash can in order to check his oil. In the distance he had observed a car passing under a street light, and recognizing the Lexus, he had curled up on the backseat of his car.
Pondering this new information, Jeff now entered the store and bought a six-pack of Dr. Pepper and a couple sandwiches. Returning to the motel, he pulled up in front to make arrangements for a room. "Can you give me a wake-up call around six?" he asked politely. Having come this far, he didn't want to take any chance on losing them, especially since it appeared that the Lexus man was also planning to steal the paper from Karen.
Jeff parked out of sight from Antonio's car. Strolling to his room, he passed the Mercedes and noticed something strange. On the back windshield was a parking sticker the same color as the one on the front windshield of the Lexus. He stopped to read it: Middlestates Theological Seminary, Student Lot #3. Well, isn't this interesting? he thought. Whistling a tune, he sauntered to his room, convinced now that all roads led to Gaziantep.
* * * * * * * * * *
Maddy was at the Martin Delaney store early Thursday morning and anxious to get started on her window display. The items she had ordered the first day at the convention had already arrived and were waiting in her workroom. She unpacked the six smallest and heaviest boxes. They contained translucent 12" x 12" glass tiles in a variety of colors. A larger and lightweight box held a 6' tall accordion screen equipped with tracks for inserting the glass tiles. The largest box held an extremely expensive wax and polymer female mannequin. This latest and novel mannequin had flexible joints, and she could be adjusted to assume any number of positions such as bending, kneeling, and sitting. Her head could be turned and even moved up and down. In fact, she could assume almost any normal position that Maddy could herself.
With the utmost care, Maddy took the mannequin from the box. She was delighted to see that this mannequin had auburn hair, like herself. And it wasn't a cheap synthetic wig but real hair that could be styled. The eyes were blue and had an incredibly realistic look, as did the lips. The mannequin's nails were nicely manicured. She looked so real that Maddy could almost picture her coming to life. "You need to get dressed, young woman. May I ask your name, by the way? Heidi? So glad to make your acquaintance, Heidi." And Maddy took her hand and gave it a gentle squeeze. It was solid yet soft, not hard like the hand of the mannequin currently gracing the store window.
Maddy marched to the store window. Grasping the mannequin in a most disrespectful manner, she hauled it back to the workroom. Carefully removing the mannequin's clothes and wig, she then grabbed it by the ankle and dragged it to a storage closet that housed out-dated items, the mannequin's bald head bouncing across the cobblestone floor. It was roughly shoved inside, head down, and the door slammed shut. "Good riddance!"
Evan had mentioned that one concept of a good window display included placing the featured articles within the peripheral range of vision and not centered as the main focal point. People's peripheral vision was extremely acute, and, sort of like the concept of "subliminal blips", items situated in the periphery, especially when moving, imprinted themselves unconsciously in a person's mind. For the focal point he suggested something showy and designed solely to catch the eye.
Maddy had spent the night, when she should have been sleeping, thinking of how she would accomplish this. Rummaging through her storeroom, she found a turntable about twenty inches in diameter. It was a wretched-looking thing, replete with dings and peeling paint. Taking a piece of sandpaper, Maddy scoured its surface. A capacious glass goblet about ten inches tall would sit on it quite nicely. She found one and washed and polished it to a sparkling shine. Next, she filled the goblet with glass balls in many different colors and sizes, the largest no bigger than a golf ball and the smallest about the size of a marble. On a pale blue card with scalloped edges, she wrote in her best calligraphy, Do you know how many? Step inside for details.
New carpeting, a plush deep blue, was positioned on the floor of the display window. In the center of the floor Maddy put a small round table about thirty inches in diameter and a foot tall. She covered the table with a piece of shimmering white satin that cascaded in luscious folds onto the blue carpet. The ugly turntable was then centered and fitted with a blue-fabric cover which Maddy herself had made. The goblet, brimming with colorful balls, was finally set down with the card leaning against it. Around the perimeter of the turntable were placed five of Martin Delaney's latest acquisitions, men's Romanian leather wallets. The wallets featured a hand-tooled initial in the center and were extremely well-crafted. They were also very expensive.
Heidi was dressed in a lovely silky creation in a minty-green color which Cherise had ordered earlier from Paris. Gently, Maddy seated Heidi on a chair of deep burgundy. She crossed Heidi's legs, now encased in pantyhose a lovely shade of pecan, and placed a pair of taupe Italian heels on her feet. The fit was perfect.
Maddy now positioned Heidi so that she was leaning slightly forward with one elbow on her knee and her fingers lightly touching her face. The other arm was extended outward with Heidi's index finger gracefully pointing at the goblet. A live fern was hung in the corner, and the appropriate lighting fixture was ensconced above to keep it healthy and green. Maddy set a large cherrywood end table in the corner underneath the fern and adorned it with a flotilla of family photos from the early 1900's, all in exquisite frames.
Not wanting to overpower the window shopper, Maddy refrained from filling every empty space of the display window but simply put three small collections of items from different departments of the store in appealing arrangements on the floor. Finally, the screen was set up behind the display and the rose-colored glass tiles inserted in the tracks. This would keep the perspective buyer's eyes focused on the display itself rather than allow them to wander through the display into the store behind where all was hectic movement.
The brown paper that temporarily draped the display window was finally removed. Eagerly Maddy rushed outside to stand in front of the window and get her first impression, but before reaching the window she turned around and hurried back inside. She had forgotten to turn on the switches for the spotlight and turntable. She flicked them on and hurried out again.
Standing in front of the window, she gazed upon the display. It was quite lovely, and Maddy couldn't have been happier. Heidi looked so real. The glass balls emitted dazzling bursts of color when the light hit them, and the rose-colored screen gave a warm and cozy feeling to the entire display.
"It has pronounced eye appeal, Maddy. You are a marvel, you know that?"
She spun around and was surprised to find Evan standing behind her. Self-consciously, she laughed softly. "Evan, how you startled me. Do you really like it?"
"Yes. I like it very much. You do have quite a talent." He looked at her affectionately. Then, in a serious tone, he continued. "Do you realize, young lady, that it is approaching 2:00, and if I'm not mistaken, you have not given a single thought to eating. How about lunch, or if you would care to grab a small bite on your own, we could wait a few more hours and have dinner. Red Lobster, perhaps?"
Maddy's face broke into a radiant smile. "I would love dinner at Red Lobster."
"Good. I'll come by for you right at 5:00 sharp." With a quick nod, he made his way to the car and was gone before she knew it.
Maddy stood on the sidewalk smiling to herself. She had never met a man quite like Evan. So sure of himself, yet unassuming in his demeanor. Never seeking attention, yet always the center of it. Content to stand quietly on the sidelines, but radiating a charisma that couldn't be ignored. At the convention he had been continually surrounded by women, young and old. Maddy had noticed the enraptured looks he drew. And still he had taken an interest in her. Evan was the epitome of politeness, and the word handsome seemed utterly inadequate.
Maddy sighed. "Get a hold of yourself, girl." She looked once more at her display and turned to go inside.
* * * * * * * * * *
Irene didn't know how she was going to break the news about Maddy to Jeff. He really cared for her, she was absolutely certain of that. Underneath his easy-going manner were intense feelings of love and loyalty. Irene's two other sons were already married and settled down, and Irene was anxious for Jeff to do the same.
Jeff was her favorite of the three boys, although she dearly loved them all. Brent, the oldest, was outspoken and sometimes gruff, even intimidating to those who didn't know him. But underneath he was just a big, cuddly teddy bear. He couldn't hurt a fly. His little girl, Brittany, was a sweet child, although every so often she could be something of a brat due to Brent's pampering. Irene thought a couple good spankings wouldn't be wasted on her and had let Brent know it. But he wouldn't hear of it. "My little Brittany? A brat?"
Brent and his wife, Allison, lived in North Dakota where he was an investment banker. Quite often Irene would make a trip to visit, Brent always arranging for her air fare. Their home was tastefully and expensively furnished, and during the past year it had been featured in a major decorating magazine. Despite their wealth, both Brent and Allison were down-to-earth everyday people, and Irene never felt uncomfortable amidst such sumptuousness.
Her youngest son, Jeremy, was doing well in his profession as the pastry chef in the most prestigious restaurant in Minneapolis. A recent Food Channel network program had featured some of his well-known desserts, including Irene's favorite, a light but creamy raspberry-banana meringue spread over and between layers of chocolate coconut sponge cake. It was the most-requested dessert at the restaurant and at $6.50 a serving must have brought in a pretty penny. His wife, Stephanie, was also a chef at the same restaurant. Soon she would give birth to their first child, and much to Irene's disgust, would return to work rather than stay home. Irene had spoken to Jeremy about this. "Mom, it's all right. Steffie's mother is going to look after the baby. Did you think we were going to stick him in the first daycare we came across?" Irene didn't know what possessed young people these days.
Jeff was the middle boy, and although he had not attained any wealth or eminence, he was, in her mind, richer than the other two. He was content. There was no never-ending pursuit of wealth or recognition, and perhaps this was why Irene loved him best.
She thought he would have proposed to Maddy long ago. Why he hesitated and put it off she never could understand. And now there might not be many chances left. Irene had seen the look of genuine attraction on Evan's face when they had come by the other day. And Maddy was terribly fond of him, Irene could see that plainly enough. The three of them had spent close to an hour getting better acquainted, and she had come to the conclusion that Evan was definitely a Prince Charming. In his late-thirties, he was about fifteen years older than Maddy. Clean-shaven with a head full of dark brown, wavy hair, he was not much taller than Maddy, who was five-foot six. Evan was in the peak of fitness, despite a job that kept him traveling extensively. And he possessed a magnetism that even Irene had felt. She thought he was about the most handsome man she had ever seen and liked him quite a bit. Yes, Jeff was certainly going to be in for a surprise when he got home.
* * * * * * * * * *
The Mercedes skimmed over the back roads toward the Devlin homestead as the sun forced its way through the clouds. The clouds swiftly scattered leaving a sky so blue that surely it had to be a harbinger of a good day.
Patsy knew that Karen was bringing a friend. She kept her fingers crossed, hoping that Antonio would hit it off with Max. They were so different, the two of them. Antonio was reserved, Max a bubbling bundle of life. Antonio was well-dressed and neat, Max a walking poster boy for the Salvation Army outlet store. Antonio's Mercedes was elegant and spotless, Max's Jeep Cherokee tired and battle-scarred. But Patsy loved Max, and so did Karen. He was quite irresistible in his love for life and in his good-natured way of thinking the best of everyone and everything.
Rolling Meadows was just a mile away over the next hill. A small, laid-back community of 13,000 in a rural section of northern Georgia, the city had never impressed Karen. To say it was shabby would be an understatement. She sent up a quick prayer that the villagers had cleaned the town up a tad.
The car climbed the last hill. On the roadway shadows danced as the sun flickered through the trees. Karen held her breath as the Mercedes sped over the top and Rolling Meadows came into view. With a sinking heart she realized her prayer had been too late. Rolling Meadows hadn't changed a bit. It was still in its perpetual state of readiness for when the official announcement would come, "JUNK JETTISON DAY TOMORROW." All manner of equipment, vehicle parts, and plain old junk in progressive stages of disintegration peppered the landscape. Karen felt a surge of disgust with Patsy and Max for living in such a place.
"Oh, Antonio, please don't let this sight give you the wrong impression of Patsy and Max. Their place is on the other side of town, about five miles out into the country, and is quite lovely. The city's a mess, I know, but it's growing. Patsy said that a new mall was recently built that's very nice."
"Karen, it's okay. First impressions aren't always the right ones. I'm sure that Rolling Meadows will someday be a picturesque place. Growing takes time." Antonio gave her hand a squeeze. "Don't worry about it."
The Mercedes passed through the town of Rolling Meadows and about ten minutes later came to the Devlin house. Antonio pulled into the driveway, carefully avoiding a few toys and a wagon. Within seconds Patsy was at the car. She yanked open the door and pulled Karen out, giving her a hug and a kiss. Her warmth and affection brought tears to Karen's eyes. Max came running out of his office, arms outstretched, and Karen was smothered in a bear hug that left her breathless. She introduced Antonio, and Max gave him a warm handshake and pat on the back. With much grace, Antonio received an affectionate hug from Patsy. Parisa hurried out too, and Karen picked her up with a heart overflowing with love. Putting her arms around Karen's neck, Parisa hugged her tightly, and tears of joy streamed down Karen's face.
* * * * * * * * * *
"You certainly have a wonderful place in which to work, Max." Antonio tried his best to sound sincere. The truth was, he couldn't imagine how anyone could possibly function in such an unorganized atmosphere, especially someone with as many degrees after his name as Max.
Max, on the other hand, was proud of his combination office and research library. He beamed as he gave Antonio a tour. Eight file cabinets lined one wall. On top of each were stacks of journals and books. In the center of the room Max had placed some poor soul's discarded dining room table, and five chairs, all different, waited in attendance. The top of the table was covered with more journals and books, plus a hodgepodge of fuzzy weed heads. Numerous bookshelves graced the other wall, and each shelf was filled to the maximum with books of all sizes. A goodly quantity of loose papers lying on top of the books added variety. Placed randomly around the room were a large globe, microscope, coffee pot, microwave, blow dryer, and television with rabbit ears.
A small room was at the far end, and upon entering it Antonio saw a desk. It was, to his astonishment, a lovely antique desk completely refinished. He was at a loss for words so merely stood there admiring its fine workmanship. There were exquisite etchings on the drawers, which were equipped with lovely brass handles. A clean and comfortable desk chair looked inviting, and tastefully hung on the walls were pictures of Civil War generals. Atop the desk sat a box of stationery and a beautiful pen and pencil set.
"Max! What a great little office! And such a beautiful desk. I can understand why you like spending so much time out here," Antonio said enviously. "And I love the pictures. They really add southern charm. I especially like that one of Stonewall Jackson."
Max walked over to join Antonio. "Yes, this is a peaceful setting. But it's not my office. It's Patsy's. Mine's at the other end. Come on, follow me and I'll show you."
Max proudly made his way to the other end of the room, talking the whole distance. Antonio slowly followed, visions of orange crates and cast-off doors before his eyes. But he was pleasantly surprised when he entered Max's office. In the middle of the floor was a large desk with a credenza behind it. A new sleek computer monitor rested behind an ergonomically-styled keyboard. A special stand for the printer was alongside the desk, and there was a small safe in the corner of the room. Two matching chairs faced the desk with a small table and lamp between them. The arrangement was quite pleasing to the eyes, but unlike Patsy's office, every flat surface was cluttered with papers and journals. He wondered how Max could possibly keep track of everything.
Despite Max's lack of order and neatness, Antonio found him a likable man. Max was highly respected in his field, and Antonio thought Max might be the right man to help him get Dr. Savarin's research ready for publication. The only problem he foresaw was explaining the missing paper while retaining his self-respect at the same time. Next time he spoke with Hamadi, he would mention it.
* * * * * * * * * *
Rolling Meadows had two motels. After watching the Mercedes turn into the Devlin driveway, Dr. Richardson turned back in the direction of town and decided to get a room at the Rolling Meadows Travel Lodge. There were, no doubt, much nicer hotels in Finley, the location of the university, but that would mean a drive of twenty-five miles. And Dr. Richardson believed that most of the action, so to speak, would center here at the Devlin home.
He made arrangements with the old gentleman who was manning the office. "I'm alone, and I'll probably be staying a few days at the most. However, there are some items I should like to purchase, so could you direct me to the nearest store, a Wal-Mart, K-Mart, Sears, or something similar?"
"We don't have any of them here, I'm afraid. But we do have our own Value Dollar Store right around the block. Try that first. You'll be surprised at all they carry."
After putting his few things in the room, Dr. Richardson drove over to the Value Dollar Store. The lot was packed, and he had no alternative but to park his Lexus on the grass next to a rusted Ford Escort which was shy one door. A sign in the window of the store advertised a "Two-for-One" sale, which accounted for the robust business.
Inside he found a small shopping cart and pushed it down the first aisle of the crowded store. The shelves held every kind of shampoo, toothpaste, shaving cream, and lotion imaginable. Amidst the jostling shoppers, he reached for a can of shaving cream. Before he could grab it, his arm was knocked away by an obese woman reaching in front of him. She elbowed her way between him and the shelves muttering, "Excuse me mister, but you're in my way." A scornful look accompanied this rudeness. Since she weighed a good hundred pounds more than he did, Dr. Richardson let her pass without punching her. Seizing the first opportunity, he grabbed a can of shaving cream and turned to put it in his cart. The cart was gone. A look of disgust crossed his face, and he thought of going back for another but changed his mind.
He found the aisle for underwear. Hanes, Fruit of the Loom, and some no-name brand stocked the shelves. He rummaged through the piles looking for his size, large in t-shirts and medium in shorts. The random search through the untidy display unearthed nothing promising, so Dr. Richardson embarked upon a more methodical and thorough examination.
Packages were scattered hither and yon, some opened with a portion of a pair of shorts or shirt hanging out, so he cleared a good-sized space on a shelf for use as a discard pile. Dr. Richardson had moved almost a dozen packages and had stacked them neatly in the discard pile when a couple of women barged in and rudely nudged him aside. Within seconds his discard pile was razed and the packages thrown indiscriminately about. Totally outraged, he pushed back in, bumping one of the women out of the way with his hip. Muttering to himself, he grabbed a package of shirts and one of shorts and with a scowl turned away. He shouldered his way through customers and hastened to the front of the store.
On his way he passed down an aisle containing soft drinks. Without stopping, he reached out and grabbed a six-pack of something, he didn't know what. As fast as he could now, he bulldozed his way to the checkout lanes not caring how many people he knocked aside. He was desperate to get out.
Unbelievably, it was less than a five-minute wait before he put his items on the counter.
"Hey mister, you know that this shaving cream is two fer one, donchya?" inquired a skinny girl chewing gum with her mouth open.
Dr. Richardson looked at her with some revulsion. "Yes, I do. I only need one."
She scanned the shaving cream with a shrug of her shoulders while she blew a bubble. Just before it popped, she sucked it back in and scanned the two packages of underwear. She slid the soda down, and Dr. Richardson noticed with sagging spirits that he had grabbed a six-pack of Diet Pepsi. He hated diet pop, and he was not fond of Pepsi either.
"This is two fer one too, yaknow." She stared at him, engaged in the necessary preparations for blowing another bubble.
"Just ring it up and forget the commentary, will ya?" He already regretted coming in, and this spectacle of a girl chomping gum with an open mouth and blowing bubbles turned his stomach.
"Suit yourself, mister. Just trying to help," she remarked in a snotty tone. She snatched the $10 bill out of his hand and thrust the change back at him with a haughty look, all the coins dropping on the counter.
"You're going to pick those coins up and place them in my hand. You're going to do it right now," and Dr. Richardson reached out with his fist and slowly opened his hand. His eyes burned into hers. If it was a test of wills she wanted, he was a master.
For a moment she stared back, but her bravado soon deflated like her last bubble. In a sulky snit she picked up the coins and with exaggerated politeness in her voice and a sneer on her face placed them one at a time in his hand. "Fifty-eight, fifty-nine, sixty, seventy, seventy-five, ten dollars." Grabbing a bag she shoved the underwear and shaving cream inside. "It's been SUCH a pleasure serving you, SIR!"
Taking it and the Pepsi, Dr. Richardson left. At the door he gave a quick glance over his shoulder. She was sticking her tongue out at him.
* * * * * * * * * *
Jeff stayed a good distance behind the Lexus. He noticed that it slowed up momentarily at one point, so when Jeff passed the spot, he slowed up also and took a look. The Mercedes was in the driveway of an elegant house. He followed the Lexus back into town until it pulled into the parking lot of the Rolling Meadows Travel Lodge. Jeff drove on until he saw another motel, The Fairview, and he turned in and parked his car in the empty lot. There was no one at the desk, so he rang the bell and waited. An elderly woman, all smiles, popped out of the adjoining room.
"Good morning, young man! Such a lovely day to be out and about. Can I give you a room?"
"Yes, it is a lovely day, and I would like to have a room," he answered cheerfully. She handed him the key to the room at the end of the line. Jeff thanked her and moved his car to the end spot. It was a small room, but nice and clean. A refrigerator, about the size of the TV, graced the top of the dresser.
Jeff laid down on the bed to think. Now that everybody was here, what did it mean? It was plain to see that the Lexus man knew both Antonio and this Dr. Devlin. Antonio must also know the Lexus man since their parking stickers were from the same seminary. They apparently had been in cahoots on something, something to do with the code, but now Antonio had broken off contact with him. And how did Dr. Devlin fit in? He was a respected scholar, perhaps a professor, but his only connection seemed to be through Karen. Savarin must be the name of another professor, most likely from the seminary where Antonio and the Lexus man were working, and he had deciphered a code. The key must have been written on a sheet of paper which had mysteriously come into Karen's possession. Was that the "Savarin piece" he had tried to look up in the library? Probably. Now since Dr. Devlin was rather famous and there was a possibility that Savarin had talked with him, the subject surely had to be the key the "poor schmucks" were waiting for in Gaziantep. Sitting up, Jeff ran his fingers through his hair and rubbed his eyes.
He sauntered back to the office where the elderly woman was working a crossword puzzle.
"Hi again," he said. "What's your name by the way, if you don't mind my asking?"
Giving him a big smile she said, "Call me Ellen. It's short for Eleanora."
"Eleanora," Jeff repeated. "I like that. Would you mind if I called you Eleanora?"
She laughed and shook her head. "No, you go right ahead. Is there something I can help you with Mr. Summerfield?"
"Jeff is fine. Well, this might be a strange question, but do you have a computer, and if so, would you be able to look up a couple things for me?"
"Why certainly. Come this way, Jeff."
He followed her into a small office where a computer and all its peripherals were sitting on the desk. Eleanora sat down, and Jeff pulled over a stepstool that was against the wall.
"I'm on this thing all the time," she said. "Sort of an addict, if you know what I mean. Now what do you want me to look up?"
"There's a seminary called Middlestates Theological Seminary in Minnesota. I'd like to see who's on the faculty there."
Eleanora started moving her mouse and punching keys, and within a minute the list of faculty appeared on the screen. "Are you looking for any name in particular?"
"Yes, is there someone named Savarin?"
She scrolled down the screen until the name appeared. "Here he is, Dr. Michael Savarin, Professor of Ancient Near Eastern Languages. Oh, it has an asterisk by his name. Let me look. It says he's deceased."
Jeff was surprised to hear this. "Right here in Rolling Meadows I believe you have a professor, Devlin is his name. Do you know him?"
"Oh my, yes. A wonderful man. And such a lovely young wife. They have a darling little girl too. Everybody knows Max. He's quite active in community functions. Teaches at the university in Finley about twenty-five miles from here. Into archaeology or something like that. How do you know about him?"
"Well, actually it's his sister-in-law that I know. She lives in the same city that I do in Minnesota. Well, I'd better be heading out. Thanks, Eleanora, for all your help. See you later." And Jeff turned and left the office with a wave of his hand before Eleanora could ask him anything more.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Max, I have a surprise for you." Karen's eyes sparkled as she spoke. They had just finished a delicious dinner that Patsy had prepared especially for Karen and Antonio.
"Yes, I know, I know! And believe you me, I've had a dandy of a time not coming right out and asking you for it. Now let me guess," and Max gleefully rubbed his hands together. "An antique from the middle east. Perhaps Nebuchadnezzar's golden image? How did you ever get it in the trunk?"
"Oh, Max!" Karen laughed. "But it's something almost as good." And like a magician pulling a rabbit from the hat, Karen pulled the paper from her pocket and held it out. "Here."
Max whisked the paper from her hand and with squinty eyes scrutinized Karen's face. "Look at her, you two. Face all aglow, holding her breath. I'd better open this before she busts!" Laughing, he winked at her and unfolded the paper. Within a matter of seconds his happy expression faded and a furrowed brow took its place.
Everyone sat in hushed suspense at the table. Everyone, that is, except Parisa. "What is it, Daddy, what is it? Is it for me?"
Arising from the table, Patsy took Parisa by the hand and guided her out of the room. "Why don't you play in here for a while, okay sweetie?" Patsy quickly returned.
In perfect silence they waited for Max to speak. Slowly he lifted his eyes and looked at Karen. "Where did you get this?" he asked in a serious tone.
"Well, I found it inside a jewelry box that I bought at auction. What is it, something important?" she asked eagerly. "I was hoping it might have something to do with all this news from Gaziantep."
"Karen, it does. This is the discovery of a lifetime. I almost can't believe I'm actually holding it." Max stared down again at the paper.
"You mean it's the missing key that everybody is waiting for?" Patsy asked.
"I believe so." Max studied the paper for about twenty seconds, and rubbing his hand along his chin, continued. "Let's think back for a minute. A rumor had gotten started that the code to discovering the whereabouts of an ancient Assyrian relic, a crown embedded with precious stones called The Eyes of Ishtar, had finally been deciphered. Next we hear of all these archaeological teams descending on Gaziantep, but they've actually been busy doing nothing because no one has yet admitted to having the key for deciphering the code. Afterward some unknown source states that a Greek named Midas will have the key in hand within a matter of days. Have I left anything out?"
"Only the accusations of searching tents and the following brouhaha," Pasty offered.
Karen leaned over to look again at the paper in Max's hand. "Then this paper was written by whoever has deciphered the code, and this Midas really doesn't have it."
"Seems so, unless there is a copy, and that I seriously doubt."
There was silence around the table until Karen spoke. "I can't remember you ever mentioning a code leading to a crown."
Max relaxed a little, leaning back in his chair. "Really? You mean I've never told you about the crown and the mystery surrounding it? Surely I've told you about it, honey," and Max looked confidently at Patsy.
"No, not really. Other than the mention of the crown on the news and an off-hand remark by you now and then, I don't know anything about it. Why don't you fill us in."
"You know, I was hoping you'd suggest that."
Max leaned forward, crossing his hands on the table. "Let's get our bearings first. The beginning of the Assyrian Empire is dated around 2400 B.C. with Sargon of Akkad as the first king. The kingdom flourished until around 1050 and then it began to decline. For over a century, from 1050 to 940 B.C., the Assyrian Empire continued to lose territory to the Arameans, but under a line of energetic kings beginning with Ashur-dan II in 934, it regained control of Upper Mesopotamia. This laid the foundation for further domination under the reign of Ashurnasirpal II, and with the booty and tribute that poured into the treasury he built a new royal capital at Nimrud. His son Shalmaneser III came to power, but at the end of his reign in 824 there were widespread revolts and Shamshi-Adad V was able to claim the throne, probably with Babylonian assistance. Shamshi-Adad V then died and his wife, Shammuramat, ruled the empire as Queen Dowager from around 811 to, say, maybe 808 or even 805. The dates aren't certain. Anyway, she reigned until their son Adad-nirari III came of age. It was for Shammuramat that the crown was made. She called it The Eyes of Ishtar due to the flashing green stones that encircled it. Legend says that the crown was of exquisite beauty, made of pure gold and unlike any other in the kingdom. We know that the crown was worn by succeeding queens, but by the time of the Battle of Carchemish it seems to have disappeared."
"Tell me about Carchemish. I really don't remember much about it," Karen confessed.
"The Battle of Carchemish was a world-changing battle, but we need to go back about 20 years to lead into it. In 627, you'll remember, Sinsariskun is ruling in Assyria. At this time Assyria is still a world empire, but their power is failing. Nabopolasser is king of Babylon and Cyarxes is king of Media, and around 625 they both attain independence, forcing Assyria to withdraw its garrisons. In 612 Babylonia and Media combine their armies and march up the Tigris River to Nineveh. Nineveh is now the capital of Assyria, located just north of Nimrud. A siege is begun and Nineveh holds out for three months. But a severe flooding of the Tigris River carries away a portion of the great wall, which allows the Babylonians and Medes entrance into the city. Nineveh is utterly destroyed and Sinsariskun dies. The Assyrians proceed to set up a new capital at Haran, about thirty-five miles west, and Ashuruballit II takes control of the failing Assyrian empire. But in 609 the Babylonian king Nabopolasser takes Haran, and the remainder of the Assyrian army is forced to retreat to Carchemish on the west bank of the Euphrates River."
"Where's the crown all this time?" Patsy hastily interjected.
"I'll get to that, honey, hang on." Max continued with his story. "Pharaoh Necho of Egypt marches north to aid the Assyrians. But there are a number of Assyrian vassals, including the kingdom of Judah, who feel that this is the time to break away from Assyria's hold. Josiah is king in Judah. He forms an alliance of the surrounding vassal states, and together with Syrian forces they march to head off Necho from coming to Assyria's aid. They intercept Necho at Megiddo and a battle is waged. However, Josiah's army is defeated and he's killed, thus opening the way for Necho to continue northward to Carchemish. It takes a number of years for all this action to occur, but finally in 605, Nebuchadnezzar, the son of Nabopolasser, marches with the Babylonian army to Carchemish. He defeats the Egyptian army and what remains of the Assyrian army, and pushes Necho all the way back to Egypt. Babylon is now undisputed ruler of Mesopotamia, Syria, and Palestine. It has become the next world empire. Egypt is never again a world power, and Assyria has ceased to exist."
"The crown, Max," Patsy insisted.
"Okay, honey. When Sinsariskun realized that Nineveh couldn't survive, tradition tells us that he gave The Eyes of Ishtar to a trusted aide to be hidden outside of Nineveh. You see, not only was the crown beautiful, but over the two centuries that had elapsed since Shammuramat wore it, a superstitious aura had settled about it. How this aide managed to get it out of the city remains a mystery. It's been conjectured that the crown was transported to Haran and from there on to Carchemish, although we nowhere read of any Assyrian queen wearing it nor of it being taken as booty at Carchemish by the Babylonians. But now we come to the really interesting part. In 1865 an archaeological team from Australia discovered a portion of a small tablet on which was written a code. Most of the symbols of the code could not be identified, and, consequently, no one was able to decipher it. However, the tablet also contained a short passage in Akkadian written in the usual cuneiform script, which was easily translated. It referred to The Eyes of Ishtar and indicated that it had been hidden. If the Assyrian aristocracy had survived, they no doubt would have been able to decipher the code, which presumably would give the location of the hiding place."
Karen, who had been sitting silently all this time, couldn't contain her excitement any longer. "And this paper holds the answer, right? So all you have to do is finish translating the tablet, get up a team of archaeologists and head to Gaziantep. You'll recover The Eyes of Ishtar and be famous!"
Not so fast, Karen." Max shook his head, holding out his hand at the same time. "Yes, the paper indicates that the key to deciphering the code has been unveiled, but by itself this paper is incomplete. Granted, I'd need to spend considerably more time studying it, but I can tell you from what I've deduced so far that there is definitely more to it than this one page. Whoever wrote this has broken the code, and this may be part of the key, but we need more of his work to do it ourselves. For all we know, the crown may not be in Gaziantep at all. Also, let's remember, the paper's not mine. Someone has put many years of hard work into developing this key."
"Yes, of course you're right," Karen said, feeling abashed. "It says right on the paper, my greatest achievement. But how do we find out who this person is? There's no name on the paper, at least none that I could find. I wonder how it got separated from the rest anyway, and why isn't he looking for it?"
"That's a good question. How could one page get lost and find its way into a jewelery box and then that same box show up at an auction? It was fortunate, Karen, that you were the one to buy it. Otherwise, the paper might have been thrown out. And think what would have become of all those poor souls waiting out in the desert sands for something that no longer exists?" He looked at his watch. "It's 6:35. Let's take a look at the news and get ourselves up-to-date."
They scrambled to the family room, and Patsy turned on the set. The latest news from Gaziantep was on.
It's 1:30 in the morning here, and everyone appears to be waiting until the break of day before venturing from their camp. The body has been identified as a man named Alexander Kristatos, alias Midas, a well-known thug in the Greek underworld. It's believed that he was here in Gaziantep to receive the key for deciphering the ancient code from his compatriot, a man who at the present moment is still unknown to us. Kristatos was not wanted here in Turkey for any crimes; however, the Greek police have been after him for some time. No one has been implicated in the murder as of yet, but the Turkish police are looking into it. For the present, no one will be allowed to pursue any excavating for relics, and no one will be allowed to leave the area. Reporting live from Gaziantep, Melissa Stewart for Fox News.
Thank you, Melissa. In case you just joined us, a body was discovered in Gaziantep today, that of Alexander Kristatos, alias Midas. His body was discovered buried not far from the American camp site. He died from a sharp blow to the head. Stay tuned for more news after this short break.
Max stood up. "I really don't know what to do about all this. Let me think about it for a bit, okay? Can you three find something to do?"
"Oh sure, honey, don't worry about us," Patsy answered him.
Excusing himself, Max left, and Patsy thoughtfully made her way back to the dining room to clear the table.
"I'll help you," Karen offered. "Antonio, do you mind?"
"No, not a bit. I'll take a little walk around the yard. You and Patsy need some time together anyway, so don't be in a rush."
Antonio went up to his room and got his cell phone. He found an area behind the old dilapidated garage that was out of view to both the house and Max's office. But before he could dial Hamadi's number, the phone rang. "Hello?"
"Mr. Kamil, you have behaved foolishly. Did you take me for some brainless moron? Soon you shall learn otherwise."
"Who is this?" Antonio asked, trying not to sound nervous.
"Why, don't you know? I am Mr. Jones. We have not formally met, but I assure you, that will be rectified shortly. Very shortly."
Antonio stood frozen to the spot, goose bumps traveling up the back of his neck. He stared at the phone in his hand. How could he have been such a fool? Dropping it on the ground, he smashed his heel into it until the phone was broken into pieces. He gathered the pieces up and buried them out of sight.
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