It was yet another day and my third without a decent night’s sleep. This time Marstead sat across from me behind the desk in his office on the sixty-fourth floor of the Marstead building. I told you he was a famous trial attorney. He dabbles in other things as well.
“I know you are familiar with all this, but we have to go through it to satisfy the legality of the estate’s distribution and closing,” Marstead explained.
Collin, Marstead’s assistant, came in carrying a tray with all the accoutrements for tea. He set the tray down on the table between the two Chippendale sofas behind us. Once he set the service off, poured, and placed the small two tiered plate of savories and sweets in place he nodded Marstead’s direction.
“Will you give us about fifteen minutes and then bring it in?” Marstead asked.
“Of course,” Collin replied. He took the tray and dismissed himself.
I gave Marstead a questioning look.
“Later,” he said with a smile and motioned me toward the table. “Let’s have some tea and I will run you through the distribution.”
We adjourned to the sofas. I must admit I was grateful for the tea. From a very young age my mother solved all family-to-universal problems over a cup of tea. There was something reassuring in picking up that cup and saucer and taking my first sip. It was almost like a balm to my soul.
“Alex and Laura were very thorough with their planning. Your parents didn’t want you to have to worry about anything,” Marstead started explaining, as he put sugar in his tea. “Their residence on the UOA campus reverted back to the Order along with all the furnishings. Their private art and antiquities collection was donated in your family name to the museum on campus with a trust to maintain it for the duration. Their personal items were donated to a local shelter except for a few things my staff and I thought you might want, your parent’s flat and your mother’s limited collection of jewelry.”
At this statement we smiled at each other. Mother always had her hands in dirt so she never wore any jewelry other than a pair of pearl earrings my father gave her on their first anniversary and her simple platinum wedding band. The flat would be the valuable thing to me. It would have all the family pictures on it, letters stored from years of correspondence back and forth between us and their friends. It would also have their personal journals. The one in their home on the UOA campus backed up every night from their field equipment.
“Did Captain Luchin have a chance to look at the flat to see if it had anything useful on it?” I asked.
“He did and there had not been an entry since their arrival at the dig.” He stirred and then sipped his tea. “They came home from their previous assignment on a distant little speck of a planet so small it had nothing other than a designation number. We had time enough to say hello and almost finish dinner. They were very excited about the dig they just came from. Alex said it was so special they were going to write a paper on it for publication. I didn’t get to hear the details because during dinner they were called by the UOA to head off to Titan Sirus 3 immediately.”
I reached out and picked up a cucumber sandwich. I hadn’t eaten much of anything lately, but the sandwich looked good.
“The UOA sends them off in such an all-fired hurry and yet they don’t know what the dig was?” I asked with disbelief.
“I don’t think Captain Luchin wanted to get your hopes up and the UOA asked him to keep it hush-hush. The Captain and I were told it was an early Arcanian colony, so they do have undercover detectives keeping their ears and eyes open for anything remotely resembling artifacts from that culture.” Marstead picked up a savory himself and bit off a mouthful. He finished chewing and went on. “The trouble as it has been explained to me is there are a lot of Arcanian artifacts already out there on the market. However, this was supposed to be a much older site and would have pre-dated anything previously found.” He wiped his hand on the napkin draped across his knee. “The UOA intends to send another team out in order to see if anything might still be there that was not excavated prior to the thieves showing up. They are going to send a security team with the archeologists this time.”
The Arcanian’s were older than the Valarian culture with a lot less written history, so a find, any find, would have been of immense interest to the UOA. A find that pre-dated any previous dig would have been an exceptional discovery. No wonder they were secretive about it. No wonder the thieves moved in when they somehow got wind of it.
There was a light knock on the door and Marstead called for Collin to come in.
Collin walked around the back of my couch with a small, dark blue box and an envelope.
Marstead put his cup down and wiped his hands quickly before taking the items.
“Thank you, Collin.”
Collin nodded and withdrew closing the door behind him.
Marstead laid the envelope on top of the box and placed his real hand protectively over the two items in his lap.
“Of course, you know that your parents left you a sizable monetary estate. I have been the conservator of it for many years and though you hardly ever seem interested in it, you can be assured it is large enough that should you chose to stop working today, you could live very well the rest of your life. Alex and Laura did not spend lavishly and the UOA was a generous employer. In addition to that, there was a life insurance policy on both your parents that almost eclipses the monetary estate they left behind.”
I took a sip of my tea. I would trade all the money in the universe to have my parents back. At the moment money was the furthest from my mind.
“If there is so much, perhaps later we can talk about making some donations,” I said over the rim of my cup.
“That would be fine. I can draw up a list of suggestions based on what I know about you and your parent’s interests,” Marstead said. “I take it you are still fond of animals?”
“Yes.” I had always been an advocate for ‘Save the (fill in the blank)’ campaigns since I was a child. “And feeding children,” I added, “any children.”
“There are certainly plenty of charities to choose from to meet that criteria.”
Marstead shifted a bit as though he were uncomfortable all of a sudden. I wondered if he hurt. I knew when I was younger and he came to visit, only to leave abruptly, mother said he was often in pain and didn’t want to admit it in front of us.
“Are you all right, Marstead?” I asked.
He cleared his throat and looked down at the box in his lap. “The last conversation I had with your parents was when they handed me this at dinner.” He looked up with eyes that threatened to tear. “You don’t know, but over the years I have always held something very special for you in the event they were to die simultaneously. The item has changed over the years. And each time it changed, my orders were to give the previous item to the UOA for their collection. Each item was from your parent’s most recent dig and came with a story, either how it was found or what it might have been.”
Marstead took a moment to lift his cup and have a sip of his now cooling tea. I could see he was having a difficult time remembering those conversations. They were dredging up too much emotion for a man known for control in any situation, whether battle or courtroom. I reached over and poured some more from the pot in his cup to warm it up. He added sugar and stirring lazily he went on.
“When you were about nine Alex found a pot with animals dancing around it. It was in remarkably good shape and the animals still had color to them. We talked about how much you would love it. Then when the next item came along, which, if I remember correctly was a BAllian flute, and I donated the pot to the UOA, they determined from the residual markers that it had been a slop jar. We had a wonderful laugh about that one.” He chuckled at the memory. “Leaving your daughter a chamber pot as a parting gift,” he smiled, “not really what they had in mind.”
He sat quietly for a moment. I could almost hear his mind sifting through the memories of those meetings over dinner or a glass of spirits.
“When you went through the stage when you were interested in rocks, I had to find a place to store a piece of lizatium the size of a football.”
Lizatium is a stone which glows much like the fire opals of earth, only more so, but is extremely heavy. Lovely, but totally useless. It is so hard it cannot be carved or worked in any way. And far too heavy, even in small pieces to be used as jewelry.
“What did they expect me to do with it?” I asked.
“You father said it could sit in the corner of your room as a nightlight once I had the floor reinforced.”
I could imagine my father thinking that was practical. He always was a dreamer and he knew I was afraid of the dark. My imagination is too active not to wonder about things lurking in dark corners.
“This item,” Marstead said, as he caressed the box, “was from the dig on that little speck of a planet that they were going to write the paper on.”
He handed me the box.
“Your mother requested I read this to you before you open it.”
Marstead opened the letter. I could see my Mother’s lovely cursive handwriting. My Father’s writing was the scratch of a hurried note taker and almost impossible to decipher. His notes often took on the form of treasure maps with scribbles in the margins and corners, lines from one paragraph to another where the thoughts should be linked later in the completed electronic form. On the other hand, Mother’s writing was a series of lovely sweeping curves beautiful enough to be embroidered on silk.
Marstead smoothed the letter out lovingly and started to read.
“If Marstead is reading you this, I have to assume your father and I had an accident on the current dig. We are sorry for causing you pain, but try to remember we died doing the thing we loved most, unearthing artifacts. I only hope that you enjoy traveling and trading throughout the stars even half as much as we love being archeologists.
“Now to what is concealed in the box. Your father and I found this on 014.666.2460 in the Magnus System. You can retrieve the exact coordinates from our journals. We were so impressed with the site that we intended to write a scholarly paper on the subject.
“One day if you happen to be passing by, you should stop and look around. I cannot put in words what we saw. Our field pictures are on the flat. Gaze in wonder my dear, we did.
“Now open the box.”
I opened the box to reveal a smooth sided octahedron. It looked like two black, stone cones glued end-to-end. But there did not appear to be a seam between them. I picked it up and it vibrated in my hand and emitted a soft hum, almost a purr.
“No doubt, you have picked it up,” Marstead continued to read. “Your father and I only had time for a few tests. The frequency is between 20 and 40 Hz. The same range our fusers use to heal bones, but this instrument is something more. You can’t hear it, but at the same time it is emitting the lower frequency hum, it is putting out an extremely high frequency signal as well. Your father and I believe it is some type of medical instrument, but it goes totally against all we saw at the site. What we found around it was extremely primitive.
“So, my dear, we have left you a mystery to solve. Perhaps one day you will work it out and write our paper for us. I know you have at least one good scholarly paper in you.”
It was my mother’s last push to get me out of my profession as trader and into hers as archeologist.
“The gift comes with strings,” Marstead read on. “If you no longer want it, you must give it over to the UOA to be added to our collection. No selling it, trading it, or giving it away.”
Mother knew me too well.
“Your loving Mother and Father,” Marstead finished.
“Have you held it?” I asked him.
“Yes, it is quite soothing, isn’t it?”
“Like holding a purring kitten,” I agreed.
I reluctantly put it back in the box.