THE MAGIC CIRCLE: The WitnessUse of this excerpt from The Magic Circle by Katherine Neville may be made only for purposes of promoting the book, with no changes, editing or additions whatsoever, and must be accompanied by the following copyright notice: copyright 1998 by Katherine Neville. All Rights Reserved.
I only am escaped alone to tell thee,Snake River, Idaho
Early Spring, 1989
It was snowing. It had been snowing for days. It seemed the snow would never end.
I had been driving through the thick of it since well before dawn. I stopped at midnight in Jackpot, Nevada, the only pink neon glow in the sky through hundreds of miles of rocky wasteland, in my long ascent from California back to Idaho, back to my job at the nuclear site. There at Jackpot, against the jangle of slot machines, I sat at a counter and ate a grilled, blood-rare steak with fries, chugged a glass of Scotch whiskey and washed it down with a mug of hot black coffee--the multi-ingredient cure-all my uncle Earnest had always recommended to remedy this kind of stress and heartache. Then I went back out into the cold black night and hit the road again.
If I hadn't stopped back in the Sierras when the first fresh snow came down for the half day of skiing I'd suddenly felt I needed to soothe my aching soul, I wouldn't have been in this predicament now, sailing along on black ice in the middle of nowhere. At least this was a nowhere that I knew well--every wrinkle of road along this trek from the Rockies to the coast. I'd crossed it often enough on business, for my job as a nuclear security expert. Ariel Behn, girl nuke. But the reason for this last jaunt was a business I'd just as soon have missed.
I could feel my body, against my will, slipping into autopilot on that long, monotonous stretch of snowy highway, as the dark waters of my mind started pulling me back to a place I knew I didn't want to go. As the miles clicked away, the snow swirled around me. I heard the crunch of my studded tires as the black ice flowed beneath me.
But I could not erase from my mind the dappled color of the grassy slope back there in California--the smoothly geometric pattern of those tombstones moving across it, those thin, thin layers of stone and grass. All that separated life from death--all that separated me from Sam--forever.
The grass was electric green--that shimmering, wonderful green that only exists in San Francisco and only at this time of year. Against the brilliant lawn, the chalk-white gravestones marched in undulating rows across the hill. Dark eucalyptus trees towered over the cemetery between the rows of markers, their silver leaves dripping with water. I looked through the tinted windows of the limousine as we pulled from the main road and doubled back into the Presidio.
I had driven this road so many times when in the Bay Area. It was the only route from the Golden Gate Bridge to the San Francisco Marina, and it passed directly by the military cemetery we were entering. Today, observing it up close and in slow motion, it was all so beautiful, so ravishing to the eye.
"Sam would have loved being here," I said aloud, speaking for the first time during the ride.
Jersey, sitting beside me in the limo, said curtly: "Well, after all, he is here, isn't he? Or what's all the hoopla about?"
At these close quarters, I caught a whiff of her breath.
"Mother, how much have you had to drink?" I said. "You smell like a brewery."
"Cutty Sark," she said with a smile. "In honor of the Navy."
"For God's sake, this is a funeral," I said irritably.
"I'm Irish," she pointed out. "We call it a wake: drink the buggers on their merry way. In my opinion, a far more civilized tradition..."
She was already having trouble with the three-syllable words. Inwardly, I was cringing, hoping she wouldn't try to give part of the eulogy that was to be delivered by the military at graveside. I wouldn't put anything past her--especially in this state of incipient inebriation. And Augustus and Grace--my well-starched father and stepmother, who disapproved of everything--were in the car just behind.
The limousines pulled through the iron gates of the Presidio cemetery and slid on past the funeral parlor. There would be no indoor service, and the coffin was already sealed for reasons pertaining, we'd been told, to national security. Besides, as we had also been told--more discreetly--it might be hard to recognize Sam. Families of bombing victims usually preferred not to be afforded that opportunity.
The line of cars moved along Lincoln Avenue and pulled up the drive, sheltered by brooding eucalyptus, at the far end of the cemetery. Several cars were already parked there--all with the recognizable white license plates of the U.S. government. Atop the small knoll was a freshly dug open grave with a cluster of men standing around it. One was an army pastor, and one with a long, thick braid of hair looked like the shaman I'd asked for. Sam would have liked that.
Our three limos pulled up in front of the government cars: Jersey and I in the family car, Augustus and Grace behind us, and Sam in the car up front in a lead-lined coffin. We all got out and started up the hill as they unloaded Sam from the hearse. Augustus and Grace stood quietly aside, not mingling--which I frankly appreciated, so Jersey's breath wouldn't be a problem. Unless someone lit a match near her.
A man with dark glasses and a trench coat separated from the gaggle of government types and moved over to speak a few words to the other two family members. Then he approached Jersey and me.
I suddenly realized we weren't dressed for a funeral. I was wearing the only black dress I owned, one with purple and yellow hibiscus all over it. Jersey was in a chic French suit, that particular shade of ice blue which was her trademark when she was on the stage, because it matched her eyes. I hoped no one would notice our lapse in protocol.
"Mrs. Behn," the man addressed Jersey, "I hope you don't mind waiting a few more minutes? The president would like to be here for the ceremony."
He didn't mean the president, of course, but a former president: the one Jersey called the Peanut Farmer, whom she'd performed for when he was in the White House.
"Hell no," said Jersey. "I don't mind waiting if Sam doesn't!"
Then she laughed, and I got another waft. Though I couldn't see the man's eyes behind those glasses, I noticed that his mouth tightened into a thin line. I stared at him in stony silence.
The helicopter was coming down across the road, settling on the Crissy Field landing strip beside the bay. Two dark-paned cars had driven out to meet it, and to collect our distinguished guest.
"Mrs. Behn," the shaded one went on, sotto voce, as if in a spy movie, "I'm instructed to tell you that the president, acting on behalf of our current administration, has arranged this morning's agenda. Although your son, as a civilian adviser, was not technically a member of the military, his death took place while he was performing a service for...I should say rather, operating in an advisory capacity to the military. Our government therefore plans to honor him appropriately. There will be a small ceremony; a military band will play; then the deceased will be given the seventeen-gun salute in farewell. After that, the president plans to present to you the Distinguished Service Medal."
"What for?" said Jersey. "I ain't the one who died, Sugar."
The ceremony had not gone exactly as planned.
After it was over, Augustus and Grace had retired to their suite atop the Mark Hopkins on Nob Hill, sending a message that they were "expecting me" to join them for dinner. Since it was just lunch time, I took Jersey to the Buena Vista to drink her lunch. We found a wooden table at the front windows, overlooking the wharves and the bay.
"Ariel, honey, I'm really sorry about what happened," said Jersey, tossing down her first glass of scotch as if it were milk.
"Sorry doesn't help," I said, repeating a line of hers from my childhood, when I'd done something wrong. "I'm having dinner with Augustus and Grace tonight. What the hell am I supposed to say to them?"
"Fuck them," said Jersey, looking at me with those famous icy blue eyes, which seemed surprisingly clear, given her recent dietary habits. "Tell them that I was startled by the guns. It's true. I was startled by those damned guns going off in my ear."
"You knew they were going to give a seventeen-gun salute," I pointed out. "I was there when the security agent told you. You were as drunk as a skunk. That's why you fell into the grave--good God--in front of all those people!"
Jersey looked up at me in injured pride, and I glared back.
But all at once I felt it coming over me, and I just couldn't help myself. I started laughing. First Jersey's expression changed to surprise; then she started laughing, too. We laughed until tears were streaming down our faces. We laughed until we could no longer catch our breath. We were choking with laughter and holding our sides, at the thought of my mother sprawled, ass up, six feet down in a hole in the ground, before they even had a chance to lower the coffin.
"Right in front of the Peanut Farmer and everything," Jersey practically screamed, and this set us off on another peal.
"Right in front of Augustus and Grace," I gasped between hysterical sobs.
It took a long time to run down, but at last we subsided into moans and chuckles. I wiped my tears with my napkin and leaned back with a sigh, holding my stomach, which was raw from laughter.
"I wish Sam could have seen what you did," I told Jersey, squeezing her arm. "It was so bizarre--just what tickled his funny bone. He would have died laughing."
"He died anyway," said Jersey. And she ordered another drink.
At seven o'clock I arrived at the Mark in the limo Augustus sent for me. He hired a car whenever he visited any city so he'd never have to degrade himself flagging down a cab. My father was into appearances. I told the driver to collect me at ten p.m. and take me back to the little Victorian inn where I was staying across the bridge. Three hours of Augustus and Grace, as I knew from experience, would be more than adequate.
Their penthouse hotel suite was large and filled with the lavish flower arrangements Grace required in any surroundings. Augustus opened the door when I knocked and regarded me sternly. My father was always elegant, with his silvery hair and tan complexion. Now, in a black cashmere blazer and gray trousers, he looked every bit the part of the feudal lord he'd been rehearsing for all his life.
"You're late," he said, glancing at his gold wristwatch. "You were to arrive at six-thirty so we could speak privately before dinner."
"This morning was enough of a family reunion for me," I told him.
I instantly regretted having alluded to the earlier events of the day.
"And that's something else I want to speak with you about: your mother," said Augustus. "First, what can I fix you to drink?"
"I had lunch with Jersey," I said. "I'm not sure I need anything much stronger than water."
Wherever Augustus went, he had a well-stocked bar set up, though he drank little himself. Maybe that's what went wrong when he and my mother were married.
"I'll fix you a spritzer; that's light," he said, and squirted the soda from a mesh-encased bottle, handing the wineglass to me.
"Where's Grace?" I asked, taking a sip as he mixed himself a light Scotch.
"She's lying down. She was quite upset by that little debacle your mother pulled this morning--and who can blame her? It was unforgivable." Augustus always referred to Jersey as your mother--as though I were responsible for her very existence, rather than the other way around.
"Actually," I told him, "I felt her display provided a well-needed touch of brightness to the entire morbid affair. I mean, I can't really imagine playing brass bands, shooting off guns, and giving someone a medal--all because, in the service of the U.S. government, he got himself blown to pieces like a dismembered patchwork quilt!"
"Don't change the subject on me, young lady," my father reprimanded me in his most authoritarian tone of voice. "Your mother's behavior was absolutely shocking. Deplorable. We were fortunate that reporters were not permitted."
Augustus would never use words like "disgusting" or "humiliating"; they were too subjective, involving personal emotion. He was only interested in the objective, the remote--things like appearance and reputation. Not feelings, which were ambiguous and beyond quantification.
In that regard, I was a good deal more like him than I cared to admit. But I still couldn't bear the fact that he was more interested in my mother's comportment at a social event than in Sam's brutal death.
"I wonder if people scream, when they die like that?" I asked aloud.
Augustus turned on his heel so I couldn't see his face. He went across to the bedroom door.
"I'll wake up Grace," he informed me over his shoulder, "so she'll be ready in time for dinner."
"I don't see how we can speak," said Grace, blotting her eyes, which were swollen with tears, and brushing a wisp of stark blonde hair from her forehead with the back of her wrist. "I don't see how we can eat. It's truly incredible to imagine how we can all be sitting here in a restaurant, trying to behave like human beings." Until that moment, it had never occurred to me that someone like Grace had ever visualized the concept of attempting to behave like a human being. Things were starting to look up.
I glanced around at the walls of the restaurant, which were done up with lattices covered in painted vines. They were scattered with a few tiny red lizards, which seemed to be basking in invisible sunlight. The table groupings were separated by large plantings of fresh chrysanthemums--flowers which are offered in tribute to the dead in all Italian cemeteries.
I'd begun and ended the day in a cemetery. Only that afternoon, I'd looked up the word in a bookstore. From Greek: koimeterion, a sleeping chamber; koiman, to put to sleep; cunae, a cradle. It was nice to think of Sam, wherever he was, as cradled in sleep.
"He was so young," Grace was saying between little sobs as she took another bite of steak tartare. She adjusted her diamond bracelet, adding the telltale words, "Wasn't he?"
The truth of the matter was, Grace had never met Sam in her life. My mother's divorce from Augustus had been nearly twenty-five years ago, and he and Grace had been married for little more than fifteen. In between was lots of proverbial water beneath the bridge, including how Sam got to be my brother without actually being the son of my mother or father. My family relations are rather complex.
But I had no time to think of that, for Grace had moved on to her favorite topic: money. As she switched to it, her tears miraculously dried and her eyes took on a luminous glow.
"We phoned the lawyers this afternoon from the suite," she told me, suddenly filled with buoyant enthusiasm. "The reading of the will, as you know, is tomorrow, and I think I should tell you that we got some good news. Though they won't give out the details, of course, it does appear that you are the principal heir!"
"Oh, goody," I said. "Sam hasn't been dead a week, and already I've profited. Did you dig out exactly how rich I'll be? Can I retire from my labors right now? Or are the tax folks likely to take most of it?"
"That's not what Grace meant, and you know it,"said Augustus, who was designing forms in his crme de volaille as I jabbed at the capers on my Scottish salmon. They rolled around the plate and evaded my fork. "Grace and I are only concerned for your own interest," he went on. "I didn't know Sam--at least not well--but I'm sure he cared a great deal for you. After all, you practically grew up as brother and sister, didn't you? And, as Earnest's only heir himself, Sam must have been very...well, comfortable financially?"
My late uncle Earnest, who'd been in the mining and mineral business, was my father's older brother, and rich as Midas. On top of that, he died with every cent he'd made, because spending money was of no interest to him. Sam was his only child.
When my parents, Augustus and Jersey, divorced, I was still very tiny. My mother ran around with me for a number of years, visiting all the capitals of the world. She was welcome in such places, since she'd been a famous singer long before marrying my father--which is how she met the Peanut Farmer and nearly everyone else of high social visibility. The Behn men had always liked flamboyant women. But, like my father, they often had trouble actually living with them.
Jersey had been drinking for years, but everyone expected opera singers to be swilling champagne as if it were water. It wasn't until Augustus announced his betrothal to Grace--a clone of Jersey at a similar age, but now twenty years her junior--that the bottle came out of Jersey's closet. She fled with me to Idaho, to consult my widowed, hermitlike uncle Earnest about financial matters (my father had invested all her earlier musical income in himself--another Behn male trait), and to everyone's surprise, Jersey and Earnest fell in love.
And I--a child who'd grown up like Eloise at the Plaza, eating pacirc;t´ de foie gras before I could pronounce it--suddenly found myself in the middle of a nowhere that I now, nearly twenty years later, called home.
So my father's question, seemingly vague, was really direct and to the point. My mother, married to two consecutive brothers, had actually stopped drinking during Earnest's lifetime. Knowing her as he did, though, Earnest left his all money to Sam, with a proviso to take care of her and of me "as he deemed best." And now Sam himself was dead. In all likelihood, his death made me a multimillionaire.
Uncle Earnest died seven years ago, when I'd just entered college, and none of us had seen Sam since. He simply vanished. Jersey and I got our two checks every month. She drank hers, and I put mine into an account and left it there. Meanwhile, I did something radical--something the Behn family women had never done. I got a job.
It was when I started working as a nuclear security officer, my first week on the job, that I heard from Sam. He phoned at my office, though God knows how he knew where I was.
"Hi, hotshot," Sam said--his favorite name for me ever since we were children. "You've broken a family tradition: no high notes or high kicks in the chorus line?"
"ÔLife upon the wicked stage ain't ever what a girl supposes.'" I quoted from my vast, unsolicited musical repertoire. But was I ever happy to hear his voice. "Where have you been all these years, blood brother? You don't need gainful employment, I gather, now that you're the full-time family benefactor. Thanks for all the checks."
"In fact," Sam corrected me, "I'm gainfully employed by a variety of governments that shall remain unnamed. I provide a service no one else can--with the possible exception of those who've been hand-trained by me, a group of one. Maybe one day you'll consider going into a joint venture?"
And that cryptic hint of a job offer was the last I'd heard of Sam until my phone call from the executor.
I felt the tires start to suck under the snow. The whole car was sliding, pulling with a riptide force off the road.
Adrenaline rushed with a hot gush up to my brain as I snapped to and gripped the steering wheel. With all my strength, throwing my whole weight behind it, I yanked those massive tons of steel back from the edge of the shoulder. But now I was hurtling in the opposite direction, out of control.
Bloody hell, I couldn't run off the road! There was nothing out there but snow, and more snow. It was so black, the snowfall so thick, I couldn't even see what was beyond the road on either side--maybe a sheer drop. I heard my mind, as if inside a well, screaming "Fool! Fool!" while I racked my brain trying to recall when I'd passed the last light in the abyss out there--fifty miles back? One hundred?
As these panicky thoughts ran through my mind, with that dual processing ability we come equipped with, I was still able to marshall my muscles and juices to try to bring the car back under control. I rocked it back and forth like a yo-yo trying to prevent it from spinning out, trying to feel beneath me--as I would under a pair of skis--the tires hydroplane on the new snow that had now formed a slick, waxy surface atop the lethal deeper layer of diamond-hard black ice.
It seemed forever until I felt I was winning the wrestling match, and the rhythm of the thousands of pounds of steel started to move toward a center of balance. I was shaking like a leaf as I let it slow to thirty, twenty-five. I took a deep breath and started it back up again, knowing as I did--as a mountain girl--that you never stop completely when the snow's coming down like that, or you may never get momentum again.
As I moved on into the black and empty night, casting up a few prayers of gratitude, I shook my head, slapped my face hard a few times to get back to reality, and rolled down the car window to let the blizzard come in and swirl around inside. Needles of snow cut my skin; I took a deep breath of icy air and held it in my lungs for a minute. I wiped my stinging eyes with the back of my glove, then yanked off the ski cap I'd been wearing and shook my hair around wildly in the whirling wind that was battering around inside the car, blowing bits of paper in its wake. By the time I rolled the window back up, I had returned to reality greatly sobered. What the hell was wrong with me?
Of course, I knew what was wrong. Sam was dead, and I was having trouble visualizing life on this planet without him. It was what a schizophrenic might call being "beside yourself" with grief. Though I hadn't seen or heard much from Sam these past seven years, he was always there in everything I did. In a way, he was the only real family I'd ever had. For the first time I realized that in his absence I had conversations with him in my mind. Now, I had no one to talk to, even in my head.
But I wasn't about to join Sam in the happy hunting grounds this moment. Certainly not by flunking an intelligence test out here on the midnight road. It was then that I noticed the glow in the distance that I could just make out through the thick lacy curtain of snow. It was large enough to be a town, and there weren't that many out here in the high desert. It looked like home to me.
But the adventure was not quite over.
I pulled up on the road above the house--which contained the charming root cellar I called home--and looked down in exhausted frustration. The driveway had disappeared, vanished in the whipped-cream snow that had drifted above the first-floor windows. After days of grueling combat driving, it seemed I now had to face a dig-in to reach the house at all, much less uncover my fathoms-deep basement apartment. That's what I deserved for living in a cellar in Idaho--just like a goddamned potato.
I turned off the ignition and sat in the car, looking in gloomy silence down the steep hill where the drive used to be, and trying to figure out what to do. Like all mountain folk, I traveled with emergency supplies in all seasons--sand, salt and water, thermal underclothes, waterproof footgear, fire making supplies, jump starters, ropes and chains--but I had no shovel. Even if I had, I'd be incapable of moving enough snow to get my car down that drive.
I sat there, mindlessly numb, watching the soft, sifting shroud of falling snow dropping silently around my car. Sam would say something funny just now, I thought. Or maybe jump out and start dancing in the snow--a snow dance, as if he were taking credit for the handiwork of the gods...
I shook my head again and tried to snap out of it. I heard the phone ringing in my apartment below. The lights were off in the main house, suggesting that my eccentric, if adorable, Mormon landlord had gone off to the mountains to catch the fresh powder for tomorrow's skiing--or perhaps over to the temple to pray for the driveway to clear itself.
Much as I hated mucking about in deep powder, I understood that the only way to traverse the steep gap between the house and the car was to ski. Luckily, my lightweight cross-country boots and skis were in back with the other survival gear--if I could only manage to follow the line where the drive should be. Our yawning chasm of a front lawn, nearly invisible beneath the drifts by now, might seem as bottomless and lethal as quicksand if I fell into it. And it also meant I'd have to abandon my car up here on the road for the night, where it would vanish, too, if the snowplows came through at dawn before I could rescue it.
I yanked the skis from the car, as well as my dufflebag and the few belongings I thought I could carry over my shoulder, and I set them out on the flat road. I was rummaging for my boots when, through the side window, I saw my mailbox--identified by the little flag rising like a gay beacon from a drift--and suddenly recalled I'd forgotten to stop my mail when I'd left so hastily for the funeral. Slamming the car door shut and hanging onto the handle for balance, I swept off the mound and extracted the mail that must have been building up all week; it was more than I'd imagined. So with my other hand I let go the door handle and reached for the dufflebag, unintentionally stepping slightly away from the car.
With that first step, I sank into snow up to my waist and I kept on sinking. I felt the fear clutching at me as I struggled against myself to keep from panicking. I knew that thrashing about would only make me sink faster. I'd lived in these parts long enough to hear of many folks who'd been smothered, sinking into bottomless snow--where they couldn't move arms or legs to free themselves. And the second I started to sink, it also occurred to me that I'd departed for the funeral with little fanfare--telling my boss only that there'd been a death in the family and leaving a cryptic note for my landlord. It was entirely possible, even if my car were found, that no one would find me until after the spring melt!
I tossed the disabling pile of mail up onto the road--under the car so it wouldn't sink into the drifts and vanish, too. I managed to get one elbow propped on the solid surface, clawing with my other hand until I could twist enough to get both arms flat on the road. When I pushed myself up, it felt like vaulting from a swimming pool with fifty-pound weights on my legs: it wrung out every ounce of energy I had. I lay flat on my stomach on the road, shaking and hot with fear and exhaustion. It didn't last long; soon the chills set in as the clinging ice from my full-body dip in that snow bank saturated my inadequately waterproofed clothes.
I staggered to my feet and yanked the car door open. Cold, soaked, thoroughly wiped out, I was furious with myself. Wasn't Jack London's "To Build a Fire" required reading for mountain children? About a chap who goes out in the tundra at sixty below, against all advice and precaution. He freezes to death. Very slowly. Not what I had on my agenda.
I pulled the cross-country boots from the car, laced them with stiff fingers in soggy gloves, snapped on my long, featherweight Nordic skis, stuffed the bundle of mail in the duffel, slung it over my shoulder, and slalomed down to the back door. Why hadn't I tried that as my first idea, and bypassed Mr. Postman until morning?
The phone was again ringing as I kicked off my skis, threw open the door, and half tumbled--along with a mess of powder--down the steep stairway to my cozy dungeon fortress. At least, it had been cozy when I'd left it a week ago.
I flicked on the lights, and saw the ice caking the inside of the windows like a frozen waterfall, and patterns of crystals formed on the mirrors and picture glass like something out of Dr. Zhivago. Softly cursing my damned landlord, who turned down my heat to spare expense whenever I left the building, I kicked off the dripping boots before I stepped onto the orientals, raced across the open, book-lined living room, and made a dive into pillows to grab the phone on the floor.
I kicked myself at once for even picking it up: it was Augustus.
"Why did you leave?" were the first words out of his mouth. "Grace and I have been nearly at our wits' end, trying to find you. Where have you been?"
"Having fun playing in the snow," I told him, rolling over on my back in the pillows and cradling the phone to my ear. "I thought the party was over; were there other treats in store?" I unbuttoned my wet trousers and tried to wriggle out of them, so I didn't get pneumonia down here in this bitterly cold dungeon--or, more likely, develop mold. I could see my breath in the air.
"Your sense of humor has always seemed to me ill-timed, at best," Augustus informed me coolly. "Or perhaps only your sense of timing. When you vanished just after the reading of the will, we phoned your hotel only to learn you had checked out earlier that same morning. But once we'd heard the will, of course, Grace and I had agreed to a press conference...."
"A press conference?!" I said, sitting bolt upright in astonishment. I tried to keep the phone to my ear as I yanked myself out of my wet parka and pulled off my sweater, but I only caught Augustus' last words:
"...must be yours as well."
"What must be mine?" I asked. I rubbed my hands hard over my goosebumpy body, stood up and dragged the phone over to the fireplace. I was stuffing pinecones and paper under the pile of logs inside as Augustus replied.
"The manuscripts, naturally. Everyone knew Sam had inherited them, how very valuable they must be. But after Earnest's death no one could locate Sam; he seemed to have been swallowed up. When I tried to discuss it before, and even during dinner, after the funeral, you seemed to want to avoid the issue. But now that it's known you're not only Sam's principal heir but his sole heir, naturally matters have changed..."
"Naturally?" I said with impatience as I lit the match under the kindling and watched with relief as the flames leapt up at once. "I have no idea what manuscripts you're talking about!"
And stranger still, I thought, regardless of what they might be worth, why on earth would someone with my father's predilection for privacy ever dream of agreeing to a press conference over it? It was more than suspicious.
"You mean you don't know of them?" Augustus was saying in an odd voice. "How can that be, when the Washington Post, London Times, and International Tribune were all here? Of course, there was nothing we could say, since the manuscripts were not in the hands of the executor--and you had vanished as well."
"Maybe you could clue me in, before I freeze to death," I said between clenched and chattering teeth. "What are these manuscripts Sam left me--no, let me guess: Francis Bacon's letters to Ben Jonson, admitting that Bacon really did--as we've always suspected--write all Shakespeare's plays."
To my surprise, Augustus didn't miss a beat. "They're worth a good deal more than that," he informed me. And my father was a man who understood the meanings of words like worth and value. "The very moment you learn anything about them, as I've no doubt you will," he went on, "you must notify me or our attorneys at once. I don't think you quite appreciate the position you are in."
Okay, I thought. I'll give this one more try. I took a deep breath.
"No, I suppose not," I agreed. "Could you see your way to share with me,
father, what the whole world already seems to know? What are these
"Pandora's," Augustus said curtly, the name sounding bitter as acid in his mouth.
Pandora was my grandmother--my father's loving mother, who'd abandoned him at birth. Though I'd never met her, by all accounts she'd been the most colorful, flamboyant, and outrageous of all the Behn women. And with our family tree, that was saying something.
"Pandora had manuscripts?" I asked my father. "What kind?"
"Oh, diaries, letters--correspondence with the great and near-great--that sort of thing," he said in a dismissive tone. Then casually, he added, "It's possible she might have even written a memoir of sorts."
I might not see eye-to-eye with my father on most things, but I knew him well enough to know when he was pulling my chain. He must have been calling here every fifteen minutes for the past two days; that's why I'd heard the phone ring twice during my brief foray outside. If he was in so much of a panic to reach me, and this stuff was so hot he had to give in to a press conference, why was he playing footsie with me now?
"Why all the belated interest?" I asked. "I mean, granny dearest has been dead for years, right?"
"It's generally believed that Pandora left these manuscripts in trust to the...other side of the family," my father said stiffly. I started thinking just how complex my family relations actually were. "Earnest must have had them under lock and key for decades, for he had many offers," Augustus went on. "But he couldn't evaluate their true value, because apparently they were all written in some sort of code. Then your cousin Sam..."
I stood there before the fire in my skivvies, phone in hand, as my father's voice flapped on like meaningless noise in the background. Good lord--they were in code.
Sam had vanished just when his father Earnest died. He was out of touch for seven years, and now he was dead. And what event coincided with that hiatus? His inheritance, including, perhaps, that of these manuscripts. And what was Sam better at than anyone on earth? What was his profession and calling? What had he spent his lifetime teaching me, that got me my very well-paying job? He broke codes.
Sam was a code breaker, maybe one of the best in the world. If Sam knew about these manuscripts of granny's, it would have been far too hard for him to resist having a look, especially if his father wanted to determine their value. He must have seen them--perhaps broken them--long before Earnest died. Of that, I was certain. So where were they now? But there was a question more crucial to me at this moment, given my own unique situation:
What was in my grandmother's diaries, which I had now technically inherited, that was so dangerous it had gotten Sam killed?