"Hey! Watch where you're going!" Lisa cried, as the Mercedes zipped around an idling taxi and passed dangerously near the curb where she stood, splashing sheets of dirty water up her jeans-clad legs.
"Well, get out of the street, you idiot!" the driver of the Mercedes yelled into his cell phone. Lisa was close enough to hear him say into the phone, "No, not you. It looked like some homeless person. You'd think as much as we pay in taxes ..." His voice faded as he drove off.
"I wasn't in the street!" Lisa yelled after him, tugging her baseball cap lower on her head. Then his words sunk in. "Homeless?" Dear God, is that what I look like? She glanced down at her faded jeans, worn and frayed at the hems. Her white T-shirt, although clean, was soft and thin from hundreds of washings. Maybe her slicker had seen better days, a few years before she'd bought it at Secondhand Sadie's, but it was durable and kept her dry. Her boot had a hole, but he couldn't have seen that, it was in the sole. The chilly puddles from the recent rain seeped into her boot, soaking her sock. She wriggled uncomfortable toes and made a mental note to duct tape her boot again. But surely she didn't look homeless? She was spotlessly clean, or at least she had been before he'd come whizzing by.
"You don't look like a homeless person, Lisa." Ruby's indignant voice interrupted her thoughts. "He's a pompous ass who thinks anybody not driving a Mercedes doesn't deserve to live."
Lisa flashed Ruby a grateful smile. Ruby was Lisa's best friend. Every evening they chatted as they waited together for the express shuttle to the city, where Lisa went to her cleaning job and Ruby sang in a downtown club.
Lisa eyed Ruby's outfit longingly. Beneath a dove-gray raincoat with classic lines she wore a stunning black dress adorned with a string of pearls. Strappy, sexy shoes displayed French-manicured toenails; shoes that would feed Lisa and her mom for a month. Not a man alive would let his car splash Ruby Lanoue. Once, Lisa might have looked like that, too. But not now, when she was so deeply in debt that she couldn't fathom a way out.
"And I know he didn't get a good look at your face." Ruby wrinkled her nose, irritated with the long-gone driver. "If he had, he certainly would've stopped and apologized."
"Because I look so depressed?" Lisa asked wryly.
"Because you're so beautiful, honey."
"Yeah. Right," Lisa said, and if there was a trace of bitterness, Ruby tactfully ignored it. "It doesn't matter. It's not like I'm trying to impress anyone."
"But you could. You have no idea what you look like, Lisa. He must have been gay. That's the only reason a man could miss a woman as gorgeous as you."
Lisa smiled faintly. "You just never give up, do you, Ruby?"
"Lisa, you're beautiful. Let me doll you up and show you off. Take off that cap and let your hair down. Why do you think God gave you such magnificent hair?"
"I like my cap." Lisa tugged at the faded bill of her Cincinnati Reds cap protectively, as if she feared Ruby might snatch it away. "Daddy bought it for me."
Ruby bit her lip hesitantly, then shrugged. "You can't hide beneath that hat forever. You know how much I care about you, and yes"—she waved away Lisa's protest before it even reached her lips—"I know your mother is dying, but that doesn't mean you are too, Lisa. You can't let it defeat you."
Lisa's expression grew shuttered. "What are you singing for your opening number tonight, Ruby?"
"Don't try to change the subject. I won't let you give up on life," Ruby said gently. "Lisa, there's so much ahead of you. You'll survive this, I promise."
Lisa averted her gaze. "But will I want to?" she muttered, kicking at the curb. Her mom, Catherine, had been diagnosed with cancer a few months ago. The diagnosis had come too late, and now little could be done with the exception of making her as comfortable as possible. Six months, maybe a year, the doctors had advised cautiously. We can try experimental procedures, but... The message was clear: Catherine would die anyway.
Her mom had refused, with unwavering determination, to be the target of experimental procedures. Spending the last months of her life in a hospital was not how either Lisa or Catherine wanted it to end. Lisa had arranged for home health care, and now money, which had always been tight for them, was even tighter.
Since the car accident five years ago that had crippled her mother and killed her father, Lisa had been working two jobs. Her life had changed overnight following her father's death. At eighteen, she'd been the cherished daughter of wealthy parents, living in Cincinnati's most elite, private community, with a brilliant, secure future ahead of her. Twenty-four hours later, on the night of her high-school graduation, her life had become a nightmare from which there'd been no awakening. Instead of going to college, Lisa had gone to work as a waitress, then picked up a night job. Lisa knew that after her mother was gone she would continue to work two jobs, trying to pay off the astronomical medical bills that had accumulated.
She winced, recalling her mother's recent instructions that she be cremated because it was less expensive than a burial. If she thought about that comment too long she might get sick right there at the bus stop. She understood that her mom was trying to be practical, seeking to minimize expenses so Lisa would have some small chance at life when she was gone, but frankly, the prospect of life alone, without her mother, held little appeal for her.
This week Catherine had taken an irrevocable turn for the worse, and Lisa had been slapped in the face with the inescapable fact that she could do nothing to ease her mother's pain. It would stop only with death. The gamut of emotions she experienced lately was bewildering to her. Some days she felt anger at the world in general; other days she would have offered her soul in exchange for her mom's health. But the worst days were the ones when she felt a twinge of resentment beneath her grief. Those days were the worst because with the resentment came a crushing load of guilt that made her aware of how ungrateful she was. Many people had not had the chance to love their mothers for as long as she had. Some people had far less than Lisa: Half full, Lisa, Catherine would remind.
As they boarded the shuttle, Ruby pulled Lisa into the seat next to her and maintained a stream of bright chatter intended to lift her spirits. It didn't work. Lisa tuned her out, trying not to think at all—and certainly not about "after." Now was bad enough.
How did it come to this? God—what has happened to my life? she wondered, massaging her temples. Beyond the glass and steel panes of the express shuttle to downtown Cincinnati, the chilly March rain began to fall again in uniform sheets of gray.
Lisa breathed deeply as she entered the museum. In its tomblike silence, she felt a cocoon of peace settle around her. Glass exhibit cases graced marble floors that were polished to a high sheen and reflected the low light from the recessed wall sconces. She paused to wipe her wet boots carefully on the mat before stepping into her sanctuary. No soggy footsteps would mar these hallowed floors.
Lisa's mind had been starved for stimulation since her last day of high school, five years ago, and she imagined that the museum spoke to her, whispering seductively of things she would never experience: lush, exotic climates, mystery, adventure. She looked forward to going to work each night, despite having spent an exhausting day waiting tables. She loved the domed ceilings with their brilliantly painted mosaics depicting famous sagas. She could describe in vivid detail the most minute nuances of the latest acquisitions. She could recite the placards by heart: each battle, each conquest, each larger-than-life hero or heroine.
When her boots were dry, Lisa hung her slicker by the door and strode briskly past the introductory exhibits, hurrying toward the medieval wing. She brushed her fingers over the plaque outside the entrance, tracing the contours of the gilded letters:
LET HISTORY BE YOUR MAGIC DOORWAY TO THE PAST
A wry smile curved her lips. She could use a magic doorway to a new world: a world in which she'd been able to attend college when all her high-school friends had scampered off with brand-new luggage to brand-new friends, leaving her behind in the dust of broken hopes and dreams. College? Bang! Parties, friends? Bang, bang! Parents who would live to see her grow up, perhaps marry? Bang!
She glanced at her watch and buried her misery in a burst of activity. Working quickly, she swept and mopped the wing until it was spotless. Dusting the presentations was a pleasure she savored, running her hands over treasures in a way no day guard would have permitted. As was her custom, she saved Director Steinmann's office for last. Not only was he the most meticulous, he often had interesting new acquisitions in his office to be cataloged prior to being placed on display. She could have spent hours wandering the silent museum, studying the weapons, the armor, the legends and battles, but Steinmann had a strict policy that she leave the museum by 5:00 a.m.
Lisa rolled her eyes as she returned books to their slots in the mahogany bookcases that lined his office. Steinmann was a pompous, condescending man. At the conclusion of her interview, she had risen and offered her hand, and Steinmann had stared at it with distaste. Then, his tone pinched with displeasure, he'd informed her that the only evidence he wanted of her nocturnal presence was impeccably clean offices. He'd gone on to remind her of the five o'clock "curfew" so strenuously that she'd felt like Cinderella, certain that Steinmann would turn her into something far worse than a pumpkin should she fail to leave the museum on time.
Despite his rude dismissal, she'd been so elated to get the job that she'd allowed her mom to talk her into going out with Ruby for a belated birthday dinner. Recalling that fiasco, Lisa closed her eyes and sighed. After dinner, Lisa had waited at the bar for change so she and Ruby could play a game of pool. A handsome, well-dressed man had approached her. He'd flirted with her and Lisa had felt special for a few moments. When he'd asked what she did for a living, she'd replied, proudly, that she worked at a museum. He'd pressed her, teasing: Director? Sales? Tour guide?
Night maid, she'd said. And during the day I waitress at First Watch.
He'd made his excuses a moment later and moved away. A flush of humiliation had stained her cheeks as she'd waited at the bar for Ruby to rescue her.
Remembering the slight, Lisa skimmed her dust cloth over the bookshelves and flicked it angrily across the large globe in the corner of the office, upset that the incident still bothered her. She had nothing to be ashamed of; she was a responsible, dedicated person, and she wasn't stupid. Her life had been curtailed by responsibilities that had been thrust on her, and in the final analysis, she felt she'd handled things pretty well.
Eventually her anger was doused by a wave of the ever-present exhaustion that nervous energy usually kept at bay. Dropping into a chair that faced Steinmann's desk, she caressed the buttery soft leather, relaxing into it. She noticed an exotic-looking chest on the corner of Steinmann's desk. She hadn't seen it before. It was about two feet long and ten inches wide. Fashioned of African ebony buffed to a deep luster, the edges carved with exquisitely detailed knot work, it was obviously a new acquisition. Contrary to Steinmann's customary vigilance, he had not locked it in the glass case where he stored new treasures yet to be cataloged.
Why would he leave such a valuable relic on his desk? Lisa wondered as she closed her eyes. She'd rest just for a minute or two. As she did so, she treated herself to a moment of fantasy: She was a financially independent woman in a beautiful home, and her mother was healthy. She had lovely hand-carved furniture and comfortable chairs. Maybe a boyfriend...
Imagining the perfect place for the lovely ebony chest in her dream home, Lisa drifted off to sleep.
"You should have called me the moment it arrived," Professor Taylor rebuked.
Steinmann ushered the professor past the exhibits toward his office. "It arrived yesterday, Taylor. It was shipped to us immediately upon excavation. The man who dug it up refused to touch it, he wouldn't even remove it from the ground." Steinmann paused. "There's a curse engraved on the lid of the chest. Although it's in ancient Gaelic, he understood enough of the language to discern its intent. Did you bring gloves?"
Taylor nodded. "And tongs to handle the contents. You haven't opened it?"
"I couldn't find the mechanism that releases the lid," Steinmann said dryly. "Initially, I wasn't certain it would open. It appears to be fashioned of a single piece of wood."
"We'll use the tongs to handle everything, until the lab has a chance to examine it. Where did you say it was found?"
"Buried near a riverbank in the Highlands of Scotland. The farmer who unearthed it was dredging creek rock to build a wall."
"How on earth did you get it out of the country?" Taylor exclaimed.
"The farmer called the curator of a small antiquities firm in Edinburgh who coincidentally owed me a favor."
Taylor didn't press for more information. The transfer of priceless relics to private collections infuriated him, but it would serve no purpose to alienate Steinmann before he got his chance to study the chest. Taylor was obsessed with all things Celtic, and when Steinmann had called him to discuss the unusual medieval piece, Taylor had barely managed to conceal his interest. To reveal it would only give Steinmann power to manipulate him, and any power in the director's hands was a dangerous thing.
"Idiot maid," Steinmann muttered as they entered the wing. "Would you look at that? She left the lights on again." A thin beam of light showed beneath his office door.
Lisa awoke abruptly, uncertain of where she was or what had awakened her. Then she heard men's voices in the hallway outside the office.
Galvanized into action, Lisa leaped to her feet and shot a panicked glance at her watch. It was 5:20 a.m.—she would lose her job! Instinctively she dropped to the floor and took a nasty blow to her temple on the corner of the desk in the process. Wincing, she crawled under the desk as she heard a key in the lock, followed by Steinmann's voice: "It's impossible to get decent help. Worthless maid didn't even lock up. All she had to do was press the button. Even a child could do it."
Lisa curled into a silent ball as the men entered the office. Although the footfalls were cushioned by thick Berber carpet, she heard them approaching the desk.
"Here it is." Steinmann's spotlessly buffed shoes stopped inches from her knees. Lisa drew a cautious, tiny breath and eased her knees back. Steinmann's shoes were joined by a pair of tasseled loafers encrusted with mud from the recent rain. It took every ounce of her willpower not to reach out and pluck the offending bits of sod from the carpet.
"What amazing detail. It's beautiful." The second voice was hushed.
"Isn't it?" Steinmann agreed.
"Wait a minute, Steinmann. Where did you say this chest was found?"
"Beneath a crush of rock near a riverbank in Scotland."
"That doesn't make any sense. How did it remain untouched by the elements? Ebony is obdurate wood, but it isn't impervious to decay. This chest is in mint condition. Has it been dated yet?"
"No, but my source in Edinburgh swore by it. Can you open it, Taylor?" Steinmann said.
There was a rustle of noise. A softly murmured "Let's see... How do you work, you lovely little mystery?"
Beneath the desk, Lisa scarcely dared to breathe as a prolonged silence ensued.
"Perhaps here?" Taylor said finally. "Maybe this little raised square... Ah, I have it! I've seen this before. It's a pressure latch." The chest made a faint popping noise. "It was tightly sealed," he observed. "Look at this, Steinmann. This latching mechanism is brilliant, and do you see the gummy resin that seals the inner channels of wood where the grooves interlock? Don't you wonder how our ancestors managed to create such clever devices? Some of the things I've seen simply defy—"
"Move the fabric and let's see what's under it, Taylor," Steinmann cut him off impatiently.
"But the cloth may disintegrate when handled," Taylor protested.
"We haven't come this far to leave without discovering what's in the chest," Steinmann snapped. "Move the cloth."
Lisa battled an urge to pop out from under the desk, curiosity nearly overriding her common sense and instinct for self-preservation.
There was a long pause. "Well? What is it?" Steinmann asked.
"I have no idea," Taylor said slowly. "I've neither translated tales of it nor seen sketches in my research. It doesn't look quite medieval, does it? It almost looks... why... futuristic," he said uneasily. "Frankly, I'm baffled. The chest is pristine, yet the fabric is ancient, and this"—he gestured at the flask—"is damned odd."
"Perhaps you aren't as much of an expert as you would have me believe, Taylor."
"No one knows more about the Gaels and Picts than I do," he replied stiffly. "But some artifacts simply aren't mentioned in any records. I assure you, I will find the answers."
"And you'll have it examined?" Steinmann said.
"I'll take it with me now—"
"No. I'll call you when we're ready to release it."
There was a pause, then: "You plan to invite someone else to examine it, don't you?" Taylor said. "You question my ability."
"I simply need to get it cataloged, photographed, and logged into our files."
"And logged into someone else's collection?" Taylor said tightly.
"Put it back, Taylor." Steinmann closed his fingers around Taylor's wrist, lowering the flask back to the cloth. He slipped the tongs from Taylor's hand, closed the chest, and placed the tongs beside it. "I brought you here. I'll tell you what I need from you and when. And I'd advise you to stay out of my business."
"Fine," Taylor snapped. "But when you discover no one else knows what it is, you'll be calling me. You can't move an artifact that can't be identified. I'm the only one who can track this thing down and you know it."
Steinmann laughed. "I'll see you out."
"I can find my own way."
"But I'll rest easier knowing I've escorted you," Steinmann said softly. "It wouldn't do to leave such a passionate antiquity worshiper as yourself wandering the museum on his own."
The shoes retreated with muffled steps across the carpet. The click of a key in the lock jarred Lisa into action. Damn and double damn! Normally when she left, she depressed the button latch on the door—no lowly maid was entrusted with keys. Steinmann had bypassed the button latch and actually used a key to lock the deadbolt. She jerked upright and banged her head against the underside of the desk. "Ow!" she exclaimed softly. As she clutched the edge and drew herself upright, she paused to look at the chest.
Fascinated, she touched the cool wood. Beautifully engraved, the black wood gleamed in the low light. Bold letters were seared into the top in angry, slanted strokes. What did the chest contain that had perplexed two sophisticated purveyors of antiquities? Despite the fact that she was locked in Steinmann's office and had no doubt that he would return in moments, she was consumed by curiosity. Futuristic? Gingerly, she ran her fingers over the chest, seeking the square pressure latch they'd mentioned, then paused. The strange letters on the lid seemed almost to... pulse. A shiver of foreboding raced up her spine.
Silly goose—open it! It can't hurt you. They touched it.
Resolved, she isolated the square and depressed it with her thumb. The lid swung upward with the faint popping sound she'd heard earlier. A flask lay inside, surrounded by dusty tatters of ancient fabric. The flask was fashioned of a silver metal and seemed to shimmer, as if the contents were energized. She cast a nervous glance at the door. She knew she had to get out of the office before Steinmann returned, yet she felt strangely transfixed by the flask. Her eyes drifted from door to flask and back again, but the flask beckoned. It said, Touch me, in the same tone all the artifacts in the museum spoke to Lisa. Touch me while no guards are about, and I will tell you of my history and my legends. I am knowledge...
Lisa's fingertips curled around the flask.
The world shifted on its axis beneath her feet. She stumbled, and suddenly she...