Leaning back in his chair with his fingers laced behind his head, Dr. Leonard Richardson contemplated the future lying ahead of him. He had received his M.A. in Ancient Civilizations of the Mediterranean and Middle East from the University of Edinburgh. His Ph.D. was in Archaeology from the National University of Ireland. These were prestigious institutions, and yet he had taken the position of Professor of Archaeology at Middlestates Theological Seminary, a second-rate institution in his opinion. For the past three years he had been devoted to his job. All the faculty thought highly of him, and he got along with everyone, with one exception: Michael Savarin.
From their first meeting, he and Savarin had not hit it off, and throughout the following three years they had maintained a cordial dislike for one another. This had been a major setback for Leonard, because he had accepted the position at Middlestates solely for the purpose of meeting Savarin and becoming close friends. On their first meeting, Leonard had casually brought up the subject of research. His questions had been harmless enough, yet to his utter surprise Savarin had closed up like a clam and excused himself. Leonard was aware of Savarin's interest in the undeciphered code concerning the Assyrian crown. The venerable professor had made some cautious inquiries several years ago to an archaeological expert working on a dig in the vicinity of Gaziantep. Of course, Savarin hadn't mentioned the Assyrian crown or code, but the questions had been suggestive. Not much research or work had been done on the code, and it had, for the most part, lain forgotten. Nevertheless, Leonard's uncle, Dr. Benjamin Meredith, who had been heading up the dig, thought that Savarin might have made some significant advance on the code and was perhaps close to actually deciphering it. He had urged Leonard to take a position at Middlestates and see what he could learn.
Now three years had passed and Leonard had learned next to nothing. Nevertheless, he was certain Dr. Savarin had finished the project. There was no mistaking the excitement in his voice when they last spoke. If Leonard could get his hands on the research, he could learn what had happened to the crown and where it was hidden. Finding this mysterious artifact would be a real feather in his cap.
The research was not in Savarin's office. His wife had claimed no knowledge of it. If Dean Marshfield had it, Leonard would have heard of it by now. Only one possibility remained: Antonio must have it. Leonard would check this out. In the meantime, he needed to finish straightening up his office, for his sabbatical had already begun.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Hello, Antonio. How are things going? Were you able to register for all the classes you wanted?" Antonio was walking down the hallway in the area of the faculty offices, and Dr. Richardson reached out his hand in a friendly gesture.
"No, not exactly. I'm taking this term off," Antonio answered as he took his hand in a firm shake. "Thought I'd take a peek into Dr. Savarin's office and see if the new professor, a man named Warren, was in. Do you know him?"
"Only met him when he came in for his interview. Seems to me he's a good choice for the seminary."
"I doubt whether he'll be as interesting as you, Dr. Richardson. I've always thought you were the best. Going to hate missing out on your class this term."
"Thank you, Antonio. However, this term you won't have to miss out because I'll be on sabbatical. I'm in the process of finishing up a few things before I lock the door. Seems a shame for you to postpone a term, what with graduation so close. Must be something important to keep you away."
"No, nothing important really. Need a rest, that's all. Been working kind of hard this past year."
"Antonio, do you have some time now? I'd like to speak to you privately for a moment."
"Oh, sure, Dr. Richardson, no problem."
"In my office then. It'll only take a few minutes."
Upon entering his office, he pushed a chair up close to the desk and gestured for Antonio to sit down. Dr. Richardson then sat behind the desk and interlaced his fingers. "It certainly was a shame about Dr. Savarin. Although Warren is a fine man, I'm not sure he'll be able to fill his shoes. You worked so closely with him, maybe his death has something to do with your taking time off? If so, it would be completely understandable." He waited momentarily, giving Antonio a chance to respond. When he didn't, Dr. Richardson continued. "Now that Dr. Savarin is gone, what is to become of his research into lost Assyrian treasures? I've given a great deal of thought to the matter and would like to make a proposal. Why don't we work together and finish the project he began, submitting it for publication posthumously. It would seem an injustice for all his efforts to go unrecognized, wouldn't you agree?"
Antonio agreed after a moment's hesitation.
"Do you have his work?"
"Well, some of it."
"Where's the rest? It hasn't been lost, has it? Oh, please, don't tell me that!"
Antonio hastened to reassure him. "No, no, not lost exactly. I'm working on gathering it all up. Might take a little bit of time though," he confessed.
"Oh, good. You had me worried for a minute." Dr. Richardson relaxed back in his chair. "When you have it all, please let me know at once, and we can make the proper arrangements for getting right on it. I know Dr. Savarin would have wished it so. But it's best to keep this between ourselves. If Dean Marshfield hears about it, he'll claim Dr. Savarin's work belongs to the seminary, although this is not true in the least. Someone else might then get credit, possibly Marshfield himself, and we wouldn't want that to happen, would we?" Here Dr. Richardson leaned forward, searching Antonio's face for any doubts. "Believe me, Antonio, I know what I'm talking about, having been in these circles for twenty years."
They spent another few minutes discussing details, with Antonio promising to call him once he had the rest of Dr. Savarin's research in hand.
* * * * * * * * *
The thought of another trip, this time to Martindale, was not a pleasant one. Nonetheless, Antonio straightened up a few things in his apartment in preparation for leaving. The television was on, and he was listening half-heartedly when a news item caught his attention.
We turn now to Gaziantep, Turkey, where a flurry of activity has erupted. Teams of archaeologists have begun arriving in hopes of discovering an ancient artifact lost since the fall of the Assyrian Empire in early 600 B.C. Apparently, a code disclosing the whereabouts of this relic has finally been deciphered. Here is a report from our Middle East correspondent, Craig Mitchell, taped earlier.
This is Craig Mitchell reporting from Gaziantep. I'm here with Dr. Neville Ackland of the British Archaeological Society. He and his team arrived in Gaziantep two days ago and have temporarily set up camp here on the outskirts of the city. Dr. Ackland, is it true that a code leading to the discovery of an ancient artifact has been deciphered?
"My dear man, I cannot presume to say. There's been no solid evidence that such is the case, only rumor, what?"
Yet you're here with your team. Why is that, if it's only rumor?
"I say, naturally we would wish to be in the location if the rumor turns out to be true, wouldn't we now."
Can you tell us more about this ancient artifact? What it is, and why it has caused this frenzy of interest?
"The artifact is a crown of the ancient Assyrian Empire called The Eyes of Ishtar. Its whereabouts have been unknown since the fall of the empire at the Battle of Carchemish in the early 7th century B.C. There is a code supposedly giving its location, but due to its undecipherable nature, not much work has been done on it."
But the word is that the code's been cracked, and Dr. Philippe Thibaut has stated that you are, in fact, the one who has done it.
"By Jove, has he now. Well, we all know Thibaut's a tuppence short of a shilling. I personally have heard five names mentioned, none of which can be verified. We shall just have to wait, what?"
Let's assume it was you who developed the key to this undecipherable code. There's a rumor floating around that it's been stolen. Is there any truth to this or do you now have it?
"My dear man, it is not wise to make assumptions."
How soon will we know whether the key is rumor or fact?
"I can't say. Only time will tell."
Reporting from Gaziantep, this is Craig Mitchell for NBC News.
Antonio turned off the set. He wondered if Dr. Richardson knew about this rumor. Strange it should center around the time of the Battle of Carchemish, the exact time period in which Dr. Savarin had been interested.
Antonio tried to remember what had been written on the last few pages of Dr. Savarin's research. He didn't recall seeing any code or key referring to a crown called The Eyes of Ishtar. The pages were filled with lots of ancient script, that much he could remember. Of course, he had been most intent on finding the very last page, the page he was expecting would show that the work was finished. Reading through any of the papers had not crossed his mind at the time. He would take another, more thorough, look when he returned from his trip.
Feeling now a sense of urgency, Antonio got into his Mercedes for the 175-mile trip. He took some minimum precaution by circling the blocks around his neighborhood several times. Satisfied that no one was following, he merged onto the interstate.
It was a delightful day for driving. Shades of orange and red highlighted the roadside trees, and wispy clouds drifted overhead. But Antonio didn't notice. He was too busy thinking.
Was there anything wrong with what he was contemplating? The seminary didn't even know about the research, so why should they have any rights to it? And Mrs. Savarin seemed genuinely glad to entrust it to him. But to allow Dr. Richardson access, Antonio wasn't sure. Plus, he had to consider this rumor floating around. Was it connected with Dr. Savarin's work?
Antonio decided that for the time being he would go along with the initial plan. He liked Dr. Richardson. Not only had he helped him now and then with his studies, but he had occasionally taken him out to dinner. They had gotten along well. Dr. Richardson was highly esteemed in his field, and the seminary had jumped at the opportunity of having him join the faculty. Among professors, Antonio thought he was the most interesting and had enjoyed every class with him. So why shouldn't they work together? This would be in accordance with Mrs. Savarin's own wishes.
Antonio decided his fortunes were looking good. He had saved the research from an ignominious demise in Todd's garage and had found someone to help prepare the research for publication. The prestige Dr. Savarin had earned would soon be forthcoming. With these thoughts going through his head, Antonio now enjoyed the scenery.
* * * * * * * * * *
"Max, do you think that story's true?" Patsy asked after the news had finished.
"I don't know. If someone has been working on the code, he's kept it a big secret. At least I've not heard a word about it. And this is the first I've heard of any rumor claiming it's been solved. You know, rumors are funny things, especially when a valuable relic is involved. People catch a hint of something big on the horizon, and not wanting to be left out, they swarm to the site. And, like most rumors, they've been blown all out of proportion. Sometimes false information is purposely leaked just to keep everybody on the wrong trail. I've looked into that code myself. If someone has deciphered it, my hat's off to him."
"How about this Ackland or Thibaut. Would they have the knowledge to decipher it?"
"Ackland's been around for a long time. He himself may not have the ability, but he's pretty thick with quite a few men who do, and I wouldn't put it past him to do a bit of sandbagging. He may be on top of what's happening and playing it close to his chest. This other guy, Thibaut, never heard of him."
"There wouldn't be any, oh, what should I call it, skullduggery over this thing, would there?"
"Hmm. Good question. Perhaps a little chicanery on the side, some double-dealing among so-called friends. It wouldn't surprise me. Archaeology is a field with its share of skunks, and this crown is big stuff, honey. Make no mistake about it."
* * * * * * * * * *
Karen turned off the TV in order to think. Strange that a code should be mentioned so soon after she herself found a paper alluding to one. And even more strange that the key to this mysterious code might be missing, perhaps stolen. But apparently no one had made any claim to having deciphered it, so perhaps it was just a rumor after all. Most likely the code mentioned on her sheet of paper was something completely different. It seemed simply too incredible that she could have come upon anything having a bearing on some international development, something so important that it was major news. Yet, on the other hand, it seemed also too incredible that she should come upon a paper mentioning a code at the exact moment a rumor was broadcast about an important code finally being deciphered.
Karen ran and got the paper. She studied it carefully. Perhaps the unknown letters on the page represented the key to the Akkadian letters above. If so, this might very well be the missing key, and that meant someone might be looking for it; maybe the owner, or someone who'd like to be. Could it be traced to her?
She was letting her imagination run away. However, best to put it away in a safe place for the time being and keep her eyes and ears open. Max would know what to do with it. Pulling the felt bottom off her table lamp, she placed the folded paper into the base. A quick application of glue secured the felt back in place. With the sleeve of her shirt, she rubbed the brass base until it glistened, smiling like a cheshire cat.
* * * * * * * * * *
Early in the afternoon Antonio found himself at the Martindale Auctions & Estate Sales. "Karen Phillips bought the jewelry box." Mr. Boswell had been somewhat hesitant about giving out this information. "I really should call and let her know I gave you her name," he spoke in a rather somber tone.
"Oh, please, that won't be necessary," Antonio hastily interjected. "I'm going to head over there immediately to see her myself. If you would be so kind to give me the directions? I'm not too familiar with Martindale, and time is of the essence." Antonio took out a pen and paper in preparation.
"I'm sorry, but I really can't help you there. You see, Miss Phillips doesn't live in Martindale. She operates a boutique in Lynley, about 250 miles from here."
"Yes. She comes here periodically to buy merchandise from us to sell at her store. You know, it may be that the jewelry box has already been sold, so if I were you, I wouldn't get my hopes up too high," Mr. Boswell cautioned.
"Yes, yes, no doubt you're right. Thank you for your time, Mr. Boswell." Antonio dragged himself back to the car, suddenly weary. All this running around was sapping his enthusiasm.
The hour was late. Too late for a trip to Lynley to find this Karen Phillips and get the jewelry box. Besides, he needed a plan before venturing into her boutique. She may have heard the newscast and recognized the paper as being the missing key, that is, if it really was the missing key. A disturbing thought crossed Antonio's mind. What if it was the key and, not recognizing it, she had thrown the paper out? Antonio didn't want to think about that.
* * * * * * * * * *
Back home in Hampton Heights, Antonio checked with Mrs. Vanderveen and learned that there had been no sign of the mysterious stranger. During the next two days he kept some appointments he had made months ago, which he felt would be unwise to cancel. With them now out of the way, he packed a few things in a suitcase and called Dr. Richardson.
"Hi, Dr. Richardson, it's me, Antonio. Something has come up and I'll be out of town for a few days. Would it be all right if we postpone any plans until I get back?"
"I see no problem with that. But I was thinking. It may not be a bad idea for me to start organizing the research while you're gone. There's probably an awful lot to go through, and to even find a starting point will require a good deal of time. I can come over now and pick it up. Shouldn't take me more than twenty minutes to get to your place."
"Well, maybe it would be better to wait until I get back. You see, I'm virtually on my way out the door and am in something of a hurry. You'll forgive me for rushing off like this, won't you? I can give you a call later when I have more time."
"Yes, of course. I know what it's like to be rushed. Might I make one other suggestion? I'll leave now, and if you don't mind leaving your door unlocked for twenty minutes, I can lock the door when I leave."
"Well, I probably wouldn't mind that, except we've had a stranger roaming around the apartment complex the last week, and we're all sort of leery right now."
"Oh, yes, I can understand that. Drive carefully then and we'll talk when you get back."
Antonio thought he detected some dissatisfaction in Dr. Richardson's response. All the same, since the conversation had ended on a cordial note, Antonio decided not to worry about it and got in his car for the trip to Lynley.
The sky abounded with soft pillowy clouds stretching out as far as the eye could see. Now and then a brilliant ray of sunshine streaked out, skipping off the car's hood and drenching the trees in twinkling lights. Such a dazzling show of nature, and yet he wasn't enjoying it and wondered why. He was slouched in the seat, feeling irritable.
Gripping the steering wheel with both hands, Antonio pushed his free foot against the floor and sashayed his rump up against the seat. He pulled his shoulders back to sit tall and straight. More alert now, he probed his mind to discover the reason for his crabbiness, and it took only a few minutes. He was feeling pressured. Yes, feeling pressured and by Dr. Richardson. If he was to continue with any sense of self-assurance, he needed to take charge and decide right now whether Dr. Richardson should be told if he found the paper.
For several minutes Antonio considered his plight, and then a question popped into his mind: How did Dr. Richardson know the area of research had been lost Assyrian treasures? He himself didn't know that. The professor had kept him delving into "peripheral, yet important" areas, most of them having to do with the decades before and after the Battle of Carchemish. And wasn't it odd that Dr. Richardson hadn't even mentioned the news from Gaziantep? Antonio thought it would be a hot topic on every archaeologist's mind.
His thoughts went back to Professor Savarin. He certainly hadn't liked Dr. Richardson, and although he'd never spoken ill of him, Antonio had sensed a sort of bristling whenever Richardson's name was mentioned. Perhaps a call to Mrs. Savarin was in order. His cell phone was within reach, and he punched in the number she had given him.
"Mrs. Savarin? This is Antonio."
"Oh, Antonio, how wonderful to hear from you. How are things going?"
"Pretty good. I was wondering about one thing though."
"Do you remember my mentioning that I'll need some help getting the research ready for publication?"
"Yes, I do."
"Well, Dr. Richardson has offered, but I'm not sure whether to accept. Seems to me that Dr. Savarin never really liked him. Is that true?"
"Yes, I'm afraid Michael never felt really comfortable around him. He thought of him as something of a snoop, always trying to find out what he was working on in a roundabout sort of way. But I'm afraid I won't be much help in suggesting someone else."
"That's okay. One other thing. Do you know precisely what this last project was about? Even though I was helping him, I wasn't working on the focal point but on some peripheral issues that he thought were important. If I knew what the main objective had been right at the start, perhaps I wouldn't have to spend so much time organizing the material."
"Oh, how I wish I could help you there, but Michael was rather secretive about the project. Many times he would say, 'Soon Maggie, soon, all eyes shall see.' Whenever he made some significant progress, he'd repeat that phrase. I use to think it was some kind of hint, and when I'd ask him about it, he would laugh. Michael was something of a tease."
"Well, thanks for your help. Are you enjoying your new home?"
"Yes, it's very nice. My sister and her husband are simply wonderful."
"I'm so glad for you, Mrs. Savarin." After a few more minutes of informal chitchat, Antonio said goodbye.
If Dr. Savarin were still alive, he would not be happy knowing Dr. Richardson was to be involved. Antonio would have to find someone else to help him. Perhaps his cousin Hamadi had some connections.
Hamadi Zakai was Antonio's only relative in Egypt with whom he kept in touch. A distant cousin in his forties, Hamadi was the assistant curator in one of the Cairo museums. He was full of life, and Antonio always enjoyed listening to his tales. Hamadi had once mentioned that a good deal of underhanded pilfering took place in prestigious museums, and that these museums offered the perfect setting for smugglers and thieves. His tales could provide the plots for any number of bestsellers with, sadly, Hamadi himself the chief villain. Antonio never knew whether to believe everything Hamadi told him or not. Yet, Antonio liked his cousin quite a bit. His loyalty to the museum was beyond question and his love for antiquities was undeniable, their preservation all that mattered.
It was late in the afternoon, around 4:30. In Cairo it would be ll:30 p.m. Nevertheless, Antonio picked up his cell phone.
After only one ring the phone was answered by a cheerful voice. "Marhaba?"
"English, Hamadi. It's me, Antonio."
"Why, Antonio, hello!" Hamadi was quite awake. "It's wonderful to hear from you. Seems like ages. What have you been doing? Still in seminary?"
At the first opportunity, Antonio mentioned the possibility of acquiring some valuable research concerning ancient Assyria. Hamadi was interested and pressed him for details. Antonio obliged by relating the high points of the research that he and the professor had been working on for the past year, not forgetting to include the information gained from Dr. Richardson. When he finished, there was a notable silence at the other end of the line.
"The Eyes of Ishtar," Hamadi breathed into the phone. "Then it's true! The code for finding the crown has been deciphered!"
Antonio was amazed how his cousin had zeroed in on this so fast. He was also surprised, and not a little embarrassed, that, with the exception of the recent news from Gaziantep, he himself had never heard of such a crown. But with this new information, he was now all the more motivated to get the paper. He told Hamadi about the missing page, but that he believed he could get hold of it. In fact, he was pursuing it while they spoke. "Would you know of someone trustworthy who could help me get the work ready for publication? There's one professor here that I know, but I'm fairly sure I don't want to work with him."
"Let me give that some thought. I'm certain I can find someone qualified. In the meantime, keep me posted. This could be something big, I mean really big, Antonio. For the both of us, if you know what I mean. Do you have any idea how many men would like to find this crown? Already they've started gathering in Gaziantep like buzzards flocking to a kill. But they don't know anything for sure, and certainly not that a crucial element is missing. They think someone out there already has the deciphered code, or that if it has been stolen, it's probably on its way to Turkey. Don't let anyone else know about the missing page. Do you hear me? No one. This could be the achievement of a lifetime, and it must be kept our secret. Such an artifact belongs in a Cairo museum, and Egypt, no doubt, would be glad to show her appreciation in a suitable fashion, don't you think?"
"Wouldn't Turkey insist on keeping it?" Antonio asked.
"Of course, but we've got something from Constantinople they've wanted for a long time. I think they'd be willing to trade."
Antonio could almost hear his cousin purring over the phone.
"Oh, Hamadi, one other thing." Antonio told him about the stranger who had searched his apartment while he was away.
"Antonio, this is not good. I don't know who he is, but I will most certainly do some checking. How lucky to have the observant Mrs. Vanderveen for a neighbor. Watch your step, please, and keep in touch."
Antonio put the phone down. "Why must everything be so complicated?" he sighed.
* * * * * * * * * *
It was noon on a gorgeous day in late September, and Jeff decided to have lunch at his favorite place, Patler's Deli. It was a large deli with accommodations for eating inside. This afternoon the place was packed with women. "What's going on here?" he asked a woman standing nearby.
"It's our Historical Society outing," she responded with pride. "We're going to a concert downtown afterward."
Jeff pushed and squirmed his way to the counter where he put in his order. "THE REGULAR BOB," he shouted over the noise. Two minutes later, armed with his sandwich and a Coke, Jeff battled his way to a table in the far corner. The roar inside was almost deafening, scores of women cackling at the same time. Not far away a young man was attempting to eat his sandwich while talking on his cell phone. Jeff hated cell phones. Why should he have to listen to someone else's conversation?
Trying to enjoy his sandwich was almost impossible. His ears were constantly assaulted with piercing, high-pitched laughter that made his skin crawl. The young man on the cell phone had to shout to be heard, and Jeff couldn't help but overhear a few words every so often.
"No, she'll never suspect...."
Suspect? Suspect what, Jeff wondered. He listened again.
"Savarin's last...piece of...will make us famous...."
Jeff stopped eating and strained to hear.
"Boutique here...saw the box...later...."
Jeff now concentrated all his attention on the man.
"Pretty glass...inside...I can get it...she's...."
The man finished his sandwich and left. His curiosity aroused, Jeff shoved the rest of the sandwich into his mouth and gulped down the Coke. On his way out, he tossed the trash into the barrel and followed the man down the street. A Mercedes was parked at the curb, and the man got in. The car seemed vaguely familiar. It shifted smoothly into gear and hummed down the street. "I wonder what that was all about?" Jeff mumbled.
Back at work, Jeff was deep in thought. The man had called it a Savarin piece. Jeff had the impression it was some kind of famous glass something-or-other, a box of some kind. Perhaps it was a well-known antique. Research on the subject might prove helpful, so after work Jeff, who was not computer literate, drove over to the public library.
The library was located on the outskirts of town overlooking the city park. Jeff had been inside a couple times when he was a kid, before his dad's accident, but not since.
He locked the car and meandered inside. A half-dozen people were at the desk with only one woman to attend them, so Jeff sat down to wait. At the next table was a young mother and three kids--two girls and a boy. The little girl, about six or so, was coloring. She was also kicking the underside of the table with a remarkable amount of gusto. Her little brother, who lounged against her, was banging his box of McDonaldland cookies and whining, "I wanna go hoooooome." The oldest girl was quietly reading a book, using a ruler for a guide. Jeff saw her pick the ruler up and hold it over her brother's head for a couple seconds. Then with obvious delight, she gave him a sound rap on the head with it. He wrinkled his nose, curled his lip, and socked her in the arm. Between the three of them, they generated a considerable racket, but mom was oblivious to it all, absorbed in a scandal magazine.
Jeff got up and wandered through the stacks of books. "Where should I look first?" he whispered to himself. Perhaps he would ask that fat lady who was looking his way. After taking one step in her direction, he changed his mind. She didn't look very friendly. He pulled a book down at random from the shelf and pretended to read it while musing over where to look. The lady gave a snort. Glancing over her way, Jeff was astonished to see her actually sneering at him. She mumbled the word pervert, and turning her back stalked away. Jeff couldn't fathom a reason for such rudeness. Maybe this library idea hadn't been such a good one after all. With a sigh of resignation, he returned the book to its place, noticing the title as he did: Erotic Dreams and Fantasies.
* * * * * * * * * *
The following day, Saturday, Jeff got out the phone book and looked up "boutiques." There were two: "Optical Boutique" and "Karen's Variety Boutique." He wasn't familiar with either. Monday during his lunch hour he would check them out, hoping that nothing criminal would take place before then. He would have preferred driving into town right then, but his time had been promised to his aunt whose dining room table had developed a significant wobble due to a loose pedestal.
Aunt Jennifer was waiting on the porch when he drove up. "Oh Jeff, you're here! Come in, I've fixed you some lunch. My special chili, nice and hot the way you like it."
It was an enjoyable lunch, and Jeff and his aunt spent an hour in cheerful conversation.
"How's your mother doing? I haven't talked to her for quite awhile. Busy in the yard, I s'pose."
"Oh, yeah. She's out there working on those mums. You know, I really can't remember when either gardening or baking hasn't taken up all her time, can you?"
"No, not really. Except for the time of your dad's accident, of course. You were so young then, I imagine it's hard for you to remember. An entire year went by and she didn't do a single thing in her garden or bake a single pie."
Yes, it was a long time ago, but Jeff remembered all too well the sadness. He had been so afraid his father was going to die. The accident had happened on a windy Saturday morning in early spring. His father was walking through the yard carrying a sheet of light-weight paneling when a tremendous gust of wind caught the panel, and in his attempt to hang on to it, he had fallen and hit his head on the side of the concrete porch. Jeff's mom was right there, and when his father didn't respond to her voice, she telephoned for an ambulance. His father was still unconscious when it arrived and remained so for several weeks. From that point on he suffered debilitating headaches.
"That was such a freak accident, wasn't it, Aunt Jennifer?"
"It certainly was. Who could ever have imagined it. But your dad, bless his heart, never complained. Just accepted what happened and was glad for every day."
Jeff helped his aunt clear the dishes away and got straight to work on the table. Thoughts of his dad ran through his head. He had taught him to be a good carpenter. "If a job's worth doing, it's worth doing well. Take your time, don't be in a rush." The repair was not difficult for him, and Jeff did the kind of job that would have made his dad proud. As usual, Aunt Jennifer offered him some money. Not ungraciously, Jeff refused it. The hug she gave him was compensation enough.
On his way home, Jeff decided to drive downtown and find the boutiques. Might as well check them out now since he had the time. The first, "Optical Boutique," was located right off the main thoroughfare on a shady side street. It was closed. Fortunately, the second, "Karen's Variety Boutique," was right across the street from it. The Mercedes was parked in front. A parking space was available directly in front of the Mercedes, so Jeff took it. The young man from the deli was inside the shop transacting a purchase with the girl at the counter. Presumably, this was Karen. From where Jeff was parked, they appeared to be in animated conversation over a mirror of some kind. Another ten to fifteen minutes passed before the transaction was completed, and they leisurely walked to the door. Jeff lowered his car window in order to hear.
The door opened and the guy from the deli came out while Karen remained in the doorway. "Bye, Antonio. See you tomorrow," and she gave a little wave with her hand.
Giving her a big smile, Antonio got in the car and eased into traffic. Karen, apparently glued to the spot, didn't budge, and Jeff could see that her eyes were misty. When the car was finally out of sight, she turned and went back inside. Jeff wondered what he should do. Follow him? Question the girl? Go home? The Mercedes was gone, so Jeff pursued what seemed the most reasonable course and entered the boutique.
Karen was back inside behind the counter, and Jeff noticed that there were ten minutes left until closing. He had never been in the boutique before and attempted to cover his uneasiness by inspecting a rack of clothing. It was a rack filled with flimsy nightgowns. Embarrassed, he quickly turned and discovered to his dismay that Karen was coming directly toward him. He scrambled around the nightgowns, and feeling flustered, decided to head for the exit. Out of the corner of his eye he spotted a glass cabinet filled with mirrors and hairbrushes. Gratefully, he dashed over and pressed his face against the front glass, and when Karen arrived he was absorbed in the intricate scrollwork on a gold hairbrush and matching mirror.
"May I assist you with something? They are lovely, aren't they? And not your everyday run-of-the mill vanity items. No, the set you're looking at was designed by a gifted artisan in Ireland named Abigail." Reaching inside the glass case, she brought the set out and handed the mirror to Jeff.
To his surprise, it was quite heavy. "It sure is pretty," he murmured. On the back were six small burnished-gold flowers, each with a sparkling stone in the center. They were all connected by swirling, twisting ridges of gold. Around the perimeter of the mirror itself were the tiniest, sparkling green stones. Karen handed him the matching brush with its dark bristles.
"Are you looking for something for your wife, perhaps?"
"No, no, I'm not married," Jeff spluttered. A pronounced silence hung in the air for the next ten seconds. "My mom would probably love them though. How much? if it's okay to ask."
"Quite reasonable, I assure you, at only $175.00. Abigail's work is highly acclaimed."
Jeff was too shocked to do anything more than mutter something about "another time" and turned away to roam around the store. Karen took her place again behind the counter.
After a minute or so, Jeff shuffled forward and, rather self-consciously, addressed her. "Pardon me, Miss, but was that Antonio who was just in here?"
Karen's face lit up. "Do you know Antonio?" she asked.
"No, no I don't, but I overheard him at the deli yesterday talking on the phone. I think he's planning on stealing a famous piece of glass from you. Was that what he took with him?"
Karen's smile slowly faded. "I'm not sure I'm following you. Are you suggesting that Antonio stole something?"
"Well, no, not exactly. But I think he might be trying to. Some kind of famous glass maybe. Was that what he had with him when he left?"
Karen came out from behind the counter looking annoyed. "Now look here. I don't know who you are or what you want, but I can assure you that Antonio didn't steal anything. He paid in cash. Now if there's nothing else, it's time to close the store. You'll excuse me, won't you?" Karen strode to the door and held it open.
With a feeling of utter failure, Jeff left the boutique. He took a crumb of comfort in the familiar proverb, The first step is always the hardest.
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