Janie and her assistant sat at a small round table in her London hotel room, a small efficiency with a kitchenette and sitting area. Intended to accommodate the service for a minimal tea, the table wasn't quite up to holding an entire scientific research project. It overflowed with piles of disorganized paperwork, which would ultimately be gathered together in a coherent fashion and rewritten to create a doctoral thesis, one that Janie sincerely hoped would make it past the critical--but she had to admit, fair--eye of her thesis advisor back in Massachusetts.
"If John Sandhaus could see this mess, he'd have a conniption fit," Janie said.
"Sorry," her assistant said with a hurt look.
"No, no, I don't mean to imply it's your fault," Janie quickly added. "I knew there would be this much paper. It's just that right now it doesn't have that 'career-saving' look I'd hoped it would. It looks like one of my early medical-school projects. Completely disorganized." She worked her way through one of the piles of papers, looking for a specific piece that she expected would have been folded into quarters because of its large size. As she plowed through the various letters of permission, geographical surveys, computer prints, and other odd scrawlings on pressed cellulose, she could see that just about everything she'd expected to find done by the time she arrived had in fact been done.
She found the piece she was looking for and unfolded it over the rest of what lay there. It was a detailed geographical map of a portion of London, a good chunk of which had been involved in the Great Fire of 1666. As part of the final thesis Janie would compare the chemical content of the soil in the burned sections against that of the unburned sections, and the final dig sites were laid out carefully on the map before her. Most of the sites were marked with red X's,
indicating that permission to dig had been acquired and that the necessary paperwork was already completed. A few were marked with the green X's
that meant permission had been given verbally, but the papers still had to be chased down.
"Wow, you've been busy, I see," she said. "Really, Caroline, this is nice work."
Caroline Porter beamed, pleased to receive Janie's acknowledgment of what had been a marvel of organization on her part. "I know when you look at this mess"--she gestured at the table--"it doesn't look like much. I was hoping to get it all into a binder before I picked you up at the airport, but it just didn't happen." She laughed a little. "I was counting on your plane being late."
Janie smiled. "Not usually a bad bet these days. But the flight went off without a hitch. Thank God, because the woman sitting beside me was a real yakker. I finally just shut off my earphones. I wish the etiquette for that stuff were more developed."
"Maybe you should e-mail Miss Manners."
Janie laughed. "Dear Miss Manners: How can one, with proper sensitivity and empathy, courteously silence one's rude and irritating airplane seatmate?"
"Gentle Reader," Caroline said, "One may whack such boors politely over the head with the buckle of one's seat belt."
"But then all the other passengers will be pissed off at me because the seat-belt alarm will sound."
Caroline smirked. "If we only ran the world, no one would face such dilemmas . . . but back to the dilemma at hand." She pointed to two spots on the map. "These two owners are away. One should be back tomorrow and the other is due in over the weekend. I have messages waiting for both of them." Then she sighed. "But this one"--she pointed to a small undeveloped area south of the Thames--"this one's going to be tough. His name is Robert Sarin. He's a very old man and he's the 'caretaker,' whatever that means, of this area." She drew her finger around it on the map. "This could be the fly in the ointment. I spoke to the man at some length yesterday before I picked you up at Heathrow. He's just not budging. And he doesn't seem to have a really good reason why he won't give permission. Tell you the truth, I don't think he's got all his bolts tightened. Seems a little slow to me."
"Do you think it will help if I give him a call myself?"
Caroline pondered for a moment before answering. "It certainly can't hurt. But I don't know why he'd give you permission if he won't give it to me. He doesn't know either of us. Maybe we should tell him about all the other people who've said yes."
"Good idea. Maybe he'd feel more comfortable if he knew what good company he'd be in by letting us dig." She shuffled through the papers until she found the list of property owners. "Lady this, Lord that, the tenth earl of whatchamacallit . . . a pretty impressive group, wouldn't you say?"
"Impressive," Caroline said. "But I don't know if it's gonna help you much. I think this guy Sarin will be a tough nut to crack."
Janie's eyebrows furrowed. "I'm getting a headache," she said. "Shit."
"I have some ibuprofen," Caroline offered, smiling.
Janie's eyebrows rose up in a look of surprise. "How'd you get that
in?" she asked.
"The toe of one shoe. I brought four pairs but he only looked through two of them."
"Congratulations, I think. But don't get caught with it."
"I'm not planning to. I'll get you a couple." She went next door to her own room and returned in less than a minute. She handed three tablets to Janie and poured her a glass of water.
Janie swallowed them quickly, then leaned back in her chair as if in anticipation of some wonderful high that would soon take hold of her. "Ah, drugs,"
she said with a sigh. "Somehow I think the drugs we used to have were a lot more fun than this."
Caroline smirked. "Back in the 'good old days'?"
Janie said nothing, but responded instead with a brief and very strained smile. In her mind's eye she saw her neat home in the foothills of the Berkshire Mountains, her husband and daughter smiling from a porch swing as they rocked back and forth. She heard the buzz of June bugs and felt the sultry heat of a New England summer. Lawn mowers and children squealing with delight as they ran through sprinklers. Laundry, snow tires, the morning bathroom ritual of three people who were accustomed to living together. Then it faded, and she was alone again.
"Janie, I'm sorry. . . . I didn't mean . . ."
Janie tried to dismiss Caroline's concern with a wave of her hand. "It's all right, Caroline," she said. "Life goes on. And you shouldn't have to tiptoe around me. I don't expect you to run everything you're going to say to me through some sort of 'appropriateness' filter. We've got enough to think about as it is." She looked up again and smiled. "And thanks for the ibuprofen," she said. "I appreciate your parting with a little bit of your supply." Then she looked away again.
There was a small but uncomfortable silence between them for a few moments. Janie finally broke it by saying, "Okay, now that I've dealt with one headache, let's get on to the next one."
"Right," Caroline said. "The unbudgeable Mr. Sarin."
Janie sighed deeply. "He could really screw this whole project up. I need that soil sample." She spaced two fingers half an inch apart from each other and displayed them in front of Caroline's face. "I'm this close
to getting certified. And I'm really getting tired of being unemployed."
"Maybe you could call John Sandhaus and see if he'll let you change the dig sites."
As she neatened the piles of papers, Janie said, "Attila the Advisor? Fat chance. He didn't even want me to come to London in the first place. "Why can't you find something to do here
?' he asked me. He'd love a chance to drag me back again and make me dig up something in the United States."
"They don't make this stuff easy for you, do they?" Caroline said.
"No, they don't," she said with a sigh. "But don't get me going on that. I haven't got enough time to wallow in it today." Then her expression intensified. "Tell you what," she said. "We'll get started on the first bunch of digs this afternoon. No time like the present." She pointed out several X's
in one neighborhood of London. "That way we can get them to the lab for analysis and I'll feel like I've actually accomplished something."
She poked through another pile of paper and then said, "I assume you've got the authorization papers for the lab somewhere in here. . . ."
Caroline moved one or two things and extracted a sheaf of pages, stapled together in one corner. "You were looking in the wrong pile," she said, smiling.
"Great," she said, taking the papers from Caroline and stuffing them in her briefcase. "While we're out, we'll swing by and take a look at this field. We should probably go ahead and place the marker, just in case, if we can do it without this Mr. Sarin seeing us. Is the geography such that we can sneak in there?"
"There are a couple of big trees and it's surrounded by a sort of thicket. I wouldn't exactly call it woods, but the place is pretty private. I think the dig site will land pretty far from the cottage."
"Then I think we should risk it. And while we're there, maybe I'll get some ideas for how to change this guy's mind."
Janie slammed her pencil down on the tabletop in frustration, nearly breaking it, bruising her fingers in the process. It was an unusual display of temper for a woman customarily so self-possessed, but one that she felt was entirely justified. When the elderly caretaker of the property had, without offering an explanation, politely but firmly refused her own plea for permission to dig, she'd resorted to nearly begging
him, and then she'd called everyone she could think of who might have the authority to overrule him. Her ear ached from a day of unproductive telephoning. She couldn't find a soul in any of England's thousand or so ministries willing to countermand Sarin's stubbornly immovable position.
What annoyed her most was the old caretaker's continued unwillingness to give her a reason for his refusal. Having seen that particular piece of ground during the previous day's fieldwork, she couldn't say that there was anything terribly precious about it. It was just an ordinary field, very slightly sloped, with a lot of weeds, unruly shrubs, and a few notable rocks. There was an old thatch-roofed stone cottage at the far end of the field in which Janie thought the caretaker probably lived. The one remarkable feature was a pair of old oaks, almost leafless, that grew from opposite sides of the dirt drive and met above it, twisting together in an ancient embrace. It was a sad and tired-looking place, not quaint and charming as she'd expected it to be. "I can't imagine what kind of care he thinks he's taking," she'd commented to Caroline at the time. "The place isn't exactly Kensington Gardens."
Janie walked to the refrigerator in her small hotel suite and selected a ripe nectarine. With a small sharp knife she sliced carefully through the smooth amber skin; the ripe flesh pulled gently away from the pit with little effort. Such a simple pleasure,
she thought, one of those things you take for granted until all these changes make them hard to get.
It was wonderfully juicy--she had to suck and bite at the same time to keep the juices from dripping onto her clothes. She ate it slowly, savoring the sweet juices, remembering a time when she would have eaten two or three such nectarines in a day without giving a minute's thought to where they came from. She licked her fingers, wiped her hands on her jeans and picked up the phone, then dialed the English eight-digit number, which left her American index finger dangling in hopeless anticipation of the ninth.
The phone rang twice in rapid succession; she could just barely hear it ringing through the wall separating her efficiency from Caroline's. Then she heard the familiar voice saying, "Hello?"
"Look sharp, darlin', this is your boss calling, and I'm in, to borrow a local phrase, a ripping bad mood."
"Oh, fabulous. Just what I need today, the boss in a bad mood. What is it now?"
"Same thing as yesterday," Janie said. "Bureaucratus nervosa.
No known treatment. Invariably fatal."
"Explain to him about involuntary vasectomies, Madam Surgeon."
Janie chuckled. "I don't know if they're doing them in England yet. And I'm not a surgeon anymore, in case you forgot, which is why I'm doing this stupid stupid
project in the first place. I should have listened to John and dug up something local. I think we're just going to have to pay our Mr. Sarin a visit."
The old caretaker closed the fragile book carefully when he heard the sound of the approaching car. He pulled the lace curtain aside and looked out through the uneven glass of the window in his ancient cottage. Shading his eyes against the late afternoon light, he tried to view the field beyond the old oaks through the eyes of his arriving visitors. What were they seeing?
he wondered, feeling suddenly nervous. Could they possibly know?
His dog stood next to him, his head tilted curiously, wondering what his master was looking at. "They're here, old chum," he said, and patted the dog's head. "They're finally here."
He watched the two women intently as they got out of their rented car. They were both well dressed; he thought anyway that there was a look of prosperity about them. The taller one was clearly older than the small one. Her dark hair was chin length, casually cut, and tinged with a bit of gray at the temple. She had a pleasant face, but wore an expression of quiet worry; he saw the telltale tiny lines between her eyebrows and wondered what this handsome and obviously blessed woman had to worry about. She had long slender fingers, he noticed, and her hands moved gracefully as she unfolded a map. The other one was younger, petite and red haired, and her face was a mass of freckles. One leads, the other follows,
As he watched them move closer together, the differences between them seemed more pronounced. They studied the map for a moment, pointing here and there and exchanging a few comments he could not hear. Then they walked the length of the pathway, both wobbling a little in their dressy shoes as they proceeded over the worn stones of the path to the cottage door. He smiled, liking the looks of them, and admitted to himself that he was eager for some company. He had made only a few friends throughout the years. Now the closest of them had gone quite simple with age, leaving the caretaker with little opportunity to satisfy his need for occasional society.
He had gone to the grocer's for a tin of biscuits, a rare treat in his normally mean household, and had set out the best of his linen and service. He'd had to refold the napkins to hide a few spots; he hoped they wouldn't notice when they used them. It had occurred to him as he laid out the accoutrements of proper hospitality that these might be his last callers, and though his upbringing had been odd and isolated, it was nevertheless quite proper. He was sad that he could not give them what they had come to get, but was determined to give them the most graciously
Excerpted from The Plague Tales by Ann Benson. . Excerpted by permission of Dell, a division of Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.