Authors: Gina Conroy
Tags: #Christian Fiction, #mystery, #Cozy Mystery
My mind jolted awake as if I’d been injected with a double espresso. “I don’t believe it.”
“There are still several other tests the artifact and soil section needs to undergo, but there is enough evidence for us to proceed with this investigation.”
“Okay, the scarab is a fake, but that doesn’t mean Jack stole the original.” I pressed dry lips together, my mouth desperate for a cool glass of water. “Detective Lopez says you have other, more compelling leads in this case. Why aren’t you investigating those?”
“I assure you we are pursuing all leads. Do you remember in 2003 when Tarek El- Sweissi, the former head of the National Democratic Party for the Giza area, was found with a substantial amount of genuine artifacts in his luxurious villa in Cairo?”
“Sure, it was the highest level of corruption Egypt had seen in decades. It rocked the archaeological world. Jack and I spent weeks trying to figure out how Egyptian smugglers managed to excavate artifacts at legitimate sites and export them as replicas, then sell them on the antiquities market.”
“Thankfully, with Swiss cooperation, we recovered 300 other priceless artifacts. Since then, we have taken extreme measures in policing archaeological sites to make sure nothing like that occurs again.”
I glanced at the two agents rummaging through the bookshelf. “What does all that have to do with Jack?”
“We have evidence to believe the heart scarab was stolen, then forged with help from someone outside of Egypt.”
“You’re not implying Jack’s involved in organized smuggling? That ring was busted up and the smugglers apprehended and convicted.”
“Many were, but not all. Egypt cannot afford to lose any more antiquities to these ruthless thieves.”
Tension swept in again as if the tightness had never left. “Jack had nothing to do with that smuggling ring. He’s only been in Egypt for three weeks.” This trip. “That’s not enough time to pull off something like this. How could the fake artifacts be smuggled from the country as real ones? Wouldn’t the forgeries be discovered when examined and retested?”
“If the smugglers were working with various rings around the world, it is feasible they could have professionals stationed to receive these replicas and pass them off as the real antiquities while the authentic artifacts were transported overseas and sold on the black market. If this is true, the real heart scarab could still be in Egypt.”
“Why go through all the trouble to create forgeries? Why not pass the real ones off as replicas like they did in the past?”
“Since the bust in 2003, Egypt has stricter laws and has increased their awareness on that type of smuggling. But if excavated antiquities on legitimate dig sites were processed and packaged for shipment to legitimate universities and museums, they would pass unnoticed, making it easier for authentic pieces to be exported as fakes and be moved out of the country.”
“That would mean dozens of archaeologists, museum curators, and other professionals could be involved—”
“Including university archaeology professors.”
“Excuse me, ma’am.” The agent with Jack’s computer squeezed past us.
My chest tightened. “You believe Jack was involved in this new smuggling ring switching the real artifacts for the forged ones and sending them here?”
“Mr. Duggins was team leader. He oversaw the storage of the excavated artifacts and had the only key. It is possible he was the professional the smugglers relied on at this university.”
“That is ridiculous. I would have known. There were others with access to the key. They could have been involved.”
“We are looking at everyone on site including Mr. Murdock. We are aware of his relationship with your husband.”
“Let’s say your theory is right. Where’s the proof?”
She paused and pressed her lips together. “Remains of a laboratory were found in an empty tomb in the mountain not far from the Valley of the Queens where your husband was excavating.”
The news detonated. When Jack called, I had actually heard an explosion.
“The Egyptian police are picking through the rubble, but have discovered pieces of computers and equipment necessary to produce replicas of this quality. We are waiting on the authenticity of the samples found and to see if they can retrieve anything off the hard drives. If traces of authentic and forged antiquities are found, even without the information on the computer, I am afraid the implications of a smuggling ring are substantial.”
Lightheaded, I reached for the chair in front of me. “Was there anything else found in the rubble?”
“Yes.” Ms. Bomani drew in a breath, her eyes softened as she looked into mine. “I am afraid so … human remains.”
MY LUNGS TIGHTENED, CHEST burned, fighting to breathe as I held onto Jack’s leather chair. He couldn’t be dead. As much as he hurt me, as much anger I still held for him, I wasn’t ready to lose him. But death stalked me like a jilted lover, taking out those around me first. People I cared about, dared to love, until its sadistic appetite was satisfied and it made its final lunge … at me.
I gasped for air. Ms. Bomani helped me sit.
Was this God’s cruel form of payment for not doing something to stop my father? Payback for letting him kill my mother? For not protecting Matt when I could?
The last agent handed me a list of confiscated items as he carried a box filled with Jack’s things. “I think we’re done.”
I didn’t remember Ms. Bomani and the agents leaving as I plodded to bed. I tossed and turned through the night, sleep always eluding me. Voices from my past taunted, keeping me on the edge of consciousness. My hand reached over, searching for comfort, but as I drifted off I knew the emptiness in and around me would never be satisfied.
Jack calls to me. Eroding earth falls on my head, covering me like a shroud. My nostrils burn. Musty earth awakens my senses. Bare feet smack the cold, hard earth as I run, run, run through the dark tunnel. My toe catches in the hem of my long nightgown. I float toward the ground, then rise up and settle on two feet. Jack’s cries grow louder, propelling me forward. My small torch grows dim. I suck in a breath. Not enough to fill my lungs. My head spins.
The tunnel opens up into two. Which way? Quiet sobs escape my lips. Light spills from the one on the left. I glimpse Fletcher’s face. The silence makes we quake. Jack’s cries pour from the ominous tunnel on my right, but it is dark.
Before I take a step, I am there. Inside the blackness, fog chokes my breath, then extinguishes my torch. I plod on, ignoring the burning in my chest, the wails more intense. Like the cries of my mother. No, desperate howls from a baby I never nursed.
Stumbling in the dark, I reach in front of me and hit a wall. In a panic, I feel all around me. Above me. The tunnel is shrinking. The chill in the air warms. My eyes sting as I crouch, choking. Smoke! A cough expels the darkness. Bright light assaults me. I shield my eyes and gaze into an endless passageway. Screams of terror pierce my soul. I sprint toward the sound. “I’m coming.” But will I make it in time?
When my eyes adjust to the light, I find myself in a small tomb. The cries have ceased. Only dead silence. I’m too late. A sarcophagus appears. Pain sears, my heart tries to crack open, my ribcage desperate for escape. I tiptoe to the stone box and remove the lid. I gasp at the wrinkled, lifeless body in the tomb.
I jerked awake, then lay motionless. My wet, cotton nightgown clung to my body. No tunnel. No tomb. Only the echoing cries lingered in my head. Even though I was awake, my body still trembled. The anguish. So real. So overwhelming. Several minutes later I rolled out of bed. I didn’t have the time or energy to analyze my dream. Truth was, I wanted to forget. I had enough worries with my living nightmare.
I plodded downstairs in my slippers and made a cup of tea. 5:15 a.m. Morning had come too soon. Whether I was ready or not, I had to start another day. If I could only rewind the clock to before Jack left. Then everything would be okay. Or would it?
What if everything I thought true was actually false? If Jack was involved in this smuggling ring, maybe he wasn’t the person I thought he was. Could the life we shared have been a lie? Had it driven him from his family? Would I ever learn the truth?
No. Where was the evidence of his guilt? I wouldn’t abandon Jack like I had my mother. Like—I pushed the thoughts from my mind and sipped my tea at the table, mentally ticking off the things I needed to accomplish today, then found a scrap paper and pen in my bag. With finals completed, I had loads of tests to grade and mid-term evaluations to fill out before the holidays. I’d promised Ben I’d pick him up for lunch, and we’d meet Elizabeth and Luke at McDonald’s, then my 3:00 interview at KTXL, and Henderson’s memorial service. I found the piece of paper with the locker combination on it and scribbled my list.
Hattie bounced in the kitchen with bright eyes and matted hair.
I sighed. “You’re awake early.”
“Couldn’t sleep.” She opened the fridge, grabbed the orange juice, and poured a glass.
“Excited about the Christmas pageant?”
She shrugged and sat next to me. “I guess.”
“Something else on your mind?”
“It’s not going to be the same without daddy.”
I fought the emotion rising in my throat. “He really wished he could hear you sing, but his job is very important. They needed him on this excavation.”
“Why him? Why couldn’t Mr. Murdock be there? He doesn’t have a family.”
“Your daddy would be here if he could.”
She scooted away from the table. “It’s been so long since … I just miss him.”
My eyes stung. Darn you, Jack. I glanced at my list. “Hattie, did you lose a locker combination?”
“No, I’ve got mine memorized. 12, 6, 22. I better jump in the shower.” She kissed me on the cheek and as quickly as she entered the kitchen, she disappeared upstairs. Five minutes later, Danny took her place at the table with his laptop. “I’ve almost got the code figured out.”
Danny pushed his wire rim glasses up on his nose, his eyes weary and bloodshot.
“I’ve never seen you wear glasses before.”
“My contacts were bothering me last night. I had to take them out.”
“Your eyes look tired. Maybe you should give them a rest.”
“I’m fine.” His fingers flew across the keyboard.
I examined his left eye, which appeared lighter in color, almost hazel, compared to his right almond-colored eye. He didn’t look fine. I rested my hand on his. “I think you should give it a rest. Maybe see an eye doctor.”
He looked at me. The difference in his eye color alarming. Yes, there was definitely something wrong.
“Sorry, I forget how people react to my eyes. The doctor says there’s nothing wrong with them. I usually wear colored contacts to disguise my hazel eye. They’re fine. Tired, but fine.”
I left him alone to do his computer thing, marveling at how a kid who bounced around from home to home could mature into such a kind young adult. Someone who always went out of his way to help. Unlike Matt, who had a wonderful, secure home, lacked for nothing, but was an untrustworthy, self-absorbed, juvenile delinquent, lacking any family responsibility.
“I won’t be home to make dinner tonight. I have to go to Henderson’s memorial service. Why don’t you order a pizza for you and the kids? I don’t want to let Matt near a telephone.”
“Uh, I got plans at 7:00. Remember my birthday dinner with Cherilyn?”
Our conversation in my office seemed like a lifetime ago. “She’s not going to Henderson’s service?”
“Nah, it’d bring back the memory of that day. Besides, she hardly knew him.”
Yeah, right! “I guess there’s enough time for me to swing home after my interview, order a pizza, and say hello to my family before the memorial.” Maybe if I was lucky one of the kids would get sick, then I’d have a great excuse not to go. Who was I kidding? Luck and I didn’t mix so well lately. I glanced over his shoulder. “What have you got so far?”
“I couldn’t decipher all the communication, but the emails to Jack contain names and Egyptian artifacts with the dates they were excavated, along with the museums and universities they were sent to.”
“Does it say anything to implicate Jack in the forgery of the heart scarab?”
“That’s not even mentioned. Just a bunch of other artifacts.”
“Can you leave me a list so I can look at them and see if any have been sent to the university?”
“Sure thing. You want me to email it to you?”
“No, how about printing it out?”
He pulled out the flash drive. “Mind if I print it out in Jack’s office?”
“Um, you can’t. Ms. Bomani confiscated his computer.”
“It’s a long story. I’ll explain later.”
Wednesday, 6:45 a.m.
Lyndon University Department of Archaeology
OPENING THE BLINDS TO my office, I squinted into the sun hovering over the horizon, a little overheated in my red, cashmere sweater and black, Armani, wool skirt, but I needed all the help I could get to usher in the Christmas spirit. Rich, yellow-orange hues flooded the sky. If it wasn’t for my darkening mood, it would’ve been a beautiful morning. I sat at my desk and started grading a stack of tests, but after fifteen minutes my stiff legs needed to stretch. I walked into the office lobby. It was quiet. Candy wouldn’t be in for at least forty-five minutes.
It sounded crazy, but ever since Ms. Bomani confirmed that the heart scarab was forged, I couldn’t help looking at my colleagues through bifocals. Peter, Fletcher, Cherilyn, and even Candy all could have stolen the heart scarab and replaced it with a forgery, if the real one actually made it to the university. If … I didn’t have the luxury of thinking it didn’t. Ms. Bomani made it clear they were narrowing their focus on Jack. Despite what she said about following other leads, no one was searching anywhere else. So I had to.
I hustled back into my office and googled Candy Finch, Lyndon University. I knew I was reaching, but I didn’t know where else to start. Several articles mentioned Candy in regards to the Archaeology Department secretary, but nothing remotely convicting. I continued searching, trying Candice then Candace. Bingo! A link to the local paper. The wedding section. There in black and white was a photo of Candy in her wedding dress with her late husband George. It was a younger, thinner Candy, during happier days. I skimmed the article. Candace Sanders married George Finch on … Sanders? Candy’s initials were C.S.? There was no way she and Henderson … I didn’t even want to attempt a visual.