Author: Trinity Day PM
[Complete] An invitation to the National Egyptology Conference quickly becomes deadly race for the mythic Ichriem against an old rival of Sydney's - the assassin known only as 'the Viper'.Rated: Fiction T - English - Adventure - Chapters: 52 - Words: 92,731 - Reviews: 41 - Favs: 11 - Follows: 1 - Updated: 07-18-04 - Published: 06-09-02 - Status: Complete - id: 825451
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Summary: An invitation to the National Egyptology Conference quickly becomes deadly race for the mythic Ichriem against an old rival of Sydney's - the assassin known only as 'the Viper'.
Note: This is a round robin originally posted at the Relic Hunter Yahoo Group. Although I'm posting it, I did not write the entire thing. This part was written by Cari Loran (carilorus yahoo com)
That's it. It's finished.
Posted: Sunday, July 18, 2004
Three Days Later
At the far corner of the yard of the Bailey estate stood a willow tree, large and ancient, that Nigel always liked to call his own. While not the only tree there, it was the most domineering feature in the sprawling lawn, a good fifty feet tall with vast, drooping lower limbs and a thick canopy of leaves that provided shade during even the hottest hours of the brightest summer day.
He'd spent many hours both up in the tree and beneath it as a boy, sometimes swinging from the dangling branches, sometimes reading, or sometimes just thinking… A lot of thinking. In fact, he'd gravitated to the tree so often to clear his mind, his father jokingly dubbed it "The Thinking Tree."
So it was somehow providence that he now lay sprawled out on a wrought iron bench under the shade of the welcoming old tree, staring up into the leaves and at the blue sky beyond. The day was soft and quiet, just as he always remembered the days in the backyard, and the air carried the lightly sweet scent of a vast flower garden growing no more than twenty feet away.
He closed his eyes and listened to the songbirds high in the top of the tree. They'd start heading south for the winter soon. True, it was scarcely September, and technically wasn't even autumn yet, but in another month the colorful birds of spring and summer would be gone. Nigel opened his eyes, focusing on a yellow warbler as it merrily hopped between the thick branches, singing its namesake song at the top of its voice. He wondered if it was as happy as it seemed to be, or if birds, like people, put on a brave face when they were down.
It had been three days now since they'd left the forsaken island of Mer de Teuer. Three days since he'd stepped on board a helicopter and felt the last of that gritty, volcanic sand underfoot. Three days… and he couldn't decide if it felt more like three minutes or three years.
They'd returned to England only a day and half ago and he'd spent most of his first day back sleeping. In fact, he'd slept for sixteen hours straight: the kind of deep, dreamless, nearly comatose slumber that rigidly defied interruption of any form. Yet when he'd finally awoken and crawled out of bed, it hadn't been with the feeling of refreshed, well-rested contentment that usually sprang forth from so much sleep.
Instead of being invigorated, he'd felt drained and somehow… empty in a way he really couldn't describe. It was as if someone had knocked him over and dumped everything out of him, then propped him back up without replacing it, leaving him standing in the scattered remnants and desperately trying to remember where they went.
With little enthusiasm, he'd eventually made it downstairs, at first thinking no one was home. The house initially had the quiet, soundless feeling of a library at closing time, but he soon found signs of life, locating his brother and Sydney in the study, laboriously pouring over… something. Whatever it was looked suspiciously like old manuscript pages, but he hadn't gotten close enough to see for himself because the two of them quickly abandoned what they were doing and transferred their scrutiny to him.
He was hustled off to the kitchen, and while he'd attempted to choke down a small breakfast he really didn't have an appetite for, the two of them sat with him and filled him in on what he'd missed while he'd been asleep. Sydney gave him a few disapproving looks at the way he barely nibbled on his food, but didn't mention it, instead telling him Claudia had gone into London to run some errands. Nigel mentally translated "running errands" into "buying clothes" after having listened to the secretary bemoan her fashion impaired state ever since they'd flown out of Morocco. He doubted she'd return from town with anything less than a new fall wardrobe.
It was what Sydney revealed next that really snagged Nigel's attention: the fact Derek Lloyd would be stopping by that afternoon.
They'd parted ways with the agent just after leaving Mer de Teuer. Once their helicopter set down again in Morocco, Lloyd had been swept up by other responsibilities clamoring for his attention…his taskforce had captured several members of the Gurel Nataz at Sid Ifni, and they were apparently quite talkative. So the agent had been hustled away, and they hadn't seen him again until just before they left for England, at which time he told them he was learning "a hell of a lot" about the situation and would keep them posted.
Now, whatever Derek had learned after the dust finally settled, he was keeping his promise to share.
And Nigel had to admit he couldn't wait to hear it.
He finally escaped the kitchen having only finished a piece of jellied toast and some orange juice, and wandered aimlessly around the house, eventually ending up back in the study. The manuscript pages were still scattered all over the room, covering the two desks, a small table, and a dark leather couch… therefore it hadn't taken long for his curiosity to get the better of him.
The pages were the color of varnished white pine and were soft and time worn around the edges, not stiff and brittle as some old documents became. Ornate writing etched across the surface in quill-stroked Latin, every word nearly a work of art in itself. A light lattice of design traced the left margin, nothing very elaborate, just a few woven squiggles, almost as if the author couldn't stand the thought of having only words on the paper.
Nigel realized he hadn't picked the first page in the series to start with, merely the closest one at hand, which was apparently from somewhere in the middle. Still, once he started translating and recognized what he was reading, the natural urge to hunt down the first page was squashed by the more overpowering desire to read more of what he already had.
Because what he had was an account of a 1496 Spanish expedition to find Ichriem.
Nigel was careful not to touch the pages, not wanting to spoil their condition. He knew the museum was likely their source… his brother hadn't just casually found the ancient tale tucked away in the bookshelves of their father's study. Moments later he received the answer to his question as Preston wandered in the room. The elder Bailey seemed pleased to find him there, quickly confirming his guess and telling him the manuscripts had been obtained by the museum just two months ago and he'd borrowed them for a few days.
"I spoke to the curator this morning and asked him about Dr. Reynold," Preston explained. "He told me he'd talked to him about a month ago. Apparently he'd heard the museum acquired these papers and wanted to make arrangements to see them."
"Did he?" Nigel wondered. He'd never met the now infamous Dr. Reynold, and if what everyone feared was true, he never would. No one had spoken of the old Egyptologist in the last few days, and in Nigel's mind, the man had evolved as a tragic figure… a person on the verge of realizing his life's ambition only to have it snatched away at the last hour.
Preston shook his head. "No. He was still digging in Egypt at the time, it must have been before he found the tablet that led him to Morocco."
"Bloody bad timing," Nigel muttered, his tone sharper and more caustic than he intended. He'd turned away from his brother and stared intently at the old manuscripts to cut off any further comments. Preston took the hint and moved to the other side of the room to stare at some of the pages on another desk. The two silently stayed that way for quite a while before Sydney unobtrusively joined them and all three became lost in the translations.
Overall the pages told a rich tale, filled with every fortune, both good and bad, that befell the expedition. The author was identified as a monk named Alfonzes, assigned to the ill-fated quest as a scribe, and he spared no detail as he recounted his story. It seemed King Ferdinand II of Spain, having success with Columbus, decided to back another expedition, one to find the fabled Egyptian statue and bring even greater glory to his country. Alfonzes implied the king's advisors had warned him against it, being skeptical of the statue's existence, but the king decided to take the gamble.
Eventually, the group reached Egypt and started an excavation somewhere outside of Minya on the solemn word of their guide. The whole thing had of course, been a failure. No Ichriem was found, but luckily they managed to excavate a cache of gold jewelry to take back to Spain. Ferdinand presented the meager treasure to his queen and declared the expedition a success.
Nigel nearly laughed: political spin was timeless.
It was comfortable as they each studied the scrolls, occasionally breaking the silence to comment about the story. Things would have suited Nigel fine if they'd stayed that way… the whole situation struck him as so normal, it was a welcome diversion. But like all happy diversions, it didn't last.
As it got closer and closer to noon, the subject of lunch reared its head and refused to go away. Preston offered him anything he'd wanted to eat, but the problem was, he hadn't wanted to eat anything… just as he hadn't wanted anything the day before. His brother was content to let him off the hook with: "Just as long as you have something else today." Sydney, on the other hand, found his flat denial of lunch a little more unacceptable. He could still hear her as the argument escalated:
"You need to eat something Nigel."
"I ate breakfast."
"You ate a piece of toast."
"That's toast!" she argued vehemently, not in the least placated. "You're going to have to start eating real food if you want to get over this and get your strength back!"
He'd stiffened at the comment, standing ramrod straight and as rigid as a metal beam. If I want to get over this? His eyes narrowed, glaring at her without disguise as his pent-up frustrations suddenly lathered to the surface in an overdue eruption. "If I want to get over this?" he echoed, his tone somewhat deadly, causing her to wince as she realized her poor choice of words. "What do you want from me Sydney?" His glare darkened. "The impossible? You might as well push me off the roof and tell me to fly."
She'd been taken aback. "I'm not asking you to fly."
"No," Nigel shook his head, the flare of anger he'd been fanning into a flame suddenly vanished from his voice, leaving it almost blank. "You're not, are you?" He'd given her a long, curious look along with his cryptic comment. "You're telling me." And with that, he felt the pressing, almost claustrophobic need to get away from the conversation. The discussion was one he didn't want and wished had never been started.
"I'm only trying to help." She was clearly getting exasperated.
Nigel didn't answer, only stepped away from the manuscript-ridden desk.
It was too much, the whole thing.
He knew she was just worried about him, but he wasn't in the mood to be coddled like a mistreated puppy. Until he found his own way to deal with his problems, he didn't want anyone else trying to tell him how he should feel or what he should do. "I think I need to be alone for a little while," he muttered instead, then looked to his brother, avoiding all eye contact with Sydney. "You know where I'll be Preston… just let me know when Derek gets here."
His brother looked momentarily puzzled, then nodded with a look of realization. "I will."
"Nigel?" Sydney called after him in concern as he walked out of the room, but he didn't stop, and he could hear Preston tell her to 'let him alone for awhile'.
That had been nearly an hour ago.
Which brought Nigel to where he was now, lying on the warm metal bench, content to stare up into the tree as his mind sifted through recent events.
The words spoken in the study still came back to him, and a part of him was still annoyed at Sydney. He was well aware he'd lost weight, he'd weighed himself that morning after crawling out of bed and seen the missing full stone, or 14 pounds, glowing back at him on the digital scale. Still, no matter how much he knew he should eat, his appetite was taking its time returning and he had no control over the pace. For all he knew he might become ravenous any second and want a seven-course meal, but until then, he'd have to take things as they came.
Ichriem hadn't been a universal cure-all.
The statue had infused them all with feelings of strength, warmth, understanding, and well-being … feelings so intense and focused, they'd lingered vividly for hours. And in those short hours, life had never seemed so pure and beautiful, so untouched by the jaded perceptions that build up in the mind's eye over time.
Then, bit by bit, the ethereal sensations faded away, leaving behind only a dim sparkle in the far corner of his mind. It was a horrid tease, to have been shown a glimpse of how the world might be if it were perfect, but surprisingly, the loss of the vision hadn't left him bitter. He felt no resentment, and no animosity as the rose-tinted view of existence retreated into memory: a place it would live for the rest of his life.
The statue had helped them in a dark time, it made it seem like their suffering had been rewarded… their physical injuries had been healed, and their glimpse into its power left them all with an awing sense of wonder. Yet as amazing as it had been, he had no desire to ever activate Ichriem again and relive it.
Only a fool would twice risk peering into such an entrancing and dangerous abyss.
Still, for all the magical things Ichriem did, it hadn't given him back his lost weight, and now the extended stress and lack of nutrients left him feeling tired and listless. So while he'd been moping around with the energy of a slug the last couple of days, trying to conjure up enough willpower to choke down toast, everyone else had been riding a high wave of get-up-and-go. It made him feel somewhat left behind... and was probably why Sydney wanted him to speed up his healing process so badly.
But in truth, his eating problem was only one part of his rather downhearted behavior. The other part stemmed from something else Ichriem hadn't been able to help him with: the memory of his kidnapping.
He sighed, irritated with his line of thought, and shifted position slightly. The iron bench wasn't the most comfortable thing in the world; it wasn't long enough to truly stretch out on, so he'd had to improvise, propping one leg up on the armrest while letting the other dangle over the side. He would have given it up all together and taken to the lawn, but didn't want to risk grass stains all over his new clothes. Of course, once he regained his weight, the slacks likely wouldn't fit anymore anyway, but he felt obligated to keep them nice for the time being.
Resigned to his situation, he vowed not to return indoors before Lloyd arrived. There was nothing in the house he wanted right now… not food, not books or television, and not company. Sydney practically radiated guilt whenever he'd looked her in the eye, and Preston was tiptoeing around as if afraid he'd suddenly shatter into a million pieces.
Nigel just wanted things to be normal. He didn't want to constantly feel like he'd just been pulled through a keyhole. He didn't want to get into arguments about why he was only eating toast. He didn't want to see the sympathetic glances and hear the quote-unquote, 'helpful advice'. In short, he just didn't have the energy to put up with everyone's good intentions.
He cursed his thoughts again, reminding himself to stop thinking about things he was trying to forget. Dwelling on the past didn't change it, and worrying about present situations he couldn't control was pointless. But maybe that was what bothered him the most: the sheer lack of control he'd had lately over his own destiny. The last word echoed in his mind for a moment, somewhat caustic in its tone. Destiny, fate … Just what had his been? It certainly hadn't been to idly sit in a New York lecture hall with Sydney and listen to the illustrious Dr. Kauffman tout his thesis platform.
Nigel nearly laughed out loud, and if he had, it would have been a self-deprecating sound. To top everything off was the ultimate irony: he hadn't even wanted to go to the Egyptology conference.
Yet his journey had started with the opening of that Pandora's box. Not for the first time he wondered what would have happened if he'd refused Sydney's invitation, if he'd stayed home gearing up for the start of the semester like he'd planned rather than following along to New York. But like all the other times he'd thought about it, he met with only one answer: Things could have been much worse. He didn't reach the conclusion out of any attempt to be pessimistic, but rather, the opposite. It was optimism that led him to believe no matter how horrible it had been, the best outcome had in fact, come to pass.
He may have been to hell and back, but he'd made it back, alive and well, as had Sydney, Preston, Derek, and Claudia. Ichriem had been found. Those were the facts he knew… he didn't know what might have been. He knew The Viper hadn't just happened to be at the conference. The mercenary had been tracking Ichriem in advance, possibly for weeks before he made his move against Sydney in the hotel lobby. Nigel didn't know what would have happened if he hadn't been with her… he didn't know if The Viper still would have stabbed her, or would have perhaps, taken her prisoner instead.
There were too many variables, too many "maybes" and"might haves" and "could haves" to even start speculating on the entire scope of the matter. He realized that even if he'd stayed home, there was a good chance he wouldn't have escaped anything. The Viper had known about him, and not just his name or the fact he worked with Sydney… he'd had very personal information at his disposal, for instance, knowing about Preston's trust fund. Unless his brother publicly released his financial records, it would be hard for anyone to casually stumble across the fact he was over eleven million dollars richer since April.
With The Viper busy shadowing Dr. Reynold in Egypt-- he'd likely learned Reynold was trying to get word to Sydney and probably saw it as the perfect opportunity. What was it he'd said on the plane? Nigel thought for a moment before recalling the mercenary's words: It's cold out there my boy, and it's kill or be killed. Fox may be your friend, but she's my rival. She proved she was a danger the day she cost me the prayer book, and Ichriem is too big a prize to risk losing. The Viper had been many things, but inept wasn't one of them… he'd no doubt been keeping tabs on Sydney ever since the prayer book incident, and through her, anyone she closely associated with.
Nigel clearly saw he'd been little more than a puppet— kidnapped as a three-pronged tool to help find Ichriem, torment Sydney, and rob his brother of his inheritance. That knowledge wasn't something that made him feel particularly good about himself, but he was mildly comforted two of the three reasons had never come to pass. After all, Preston still had his fortune, and The Viper had met his fate before even setting eyes on Ichriem… but the third reason had still been fulfilled, and it hadn't just tormented Sydney.
If there was one thing Nigel never wanted, it was to cause someone pain or grief or disappointment. As a boy, one lowly spoken "I'm disappointed in you" from his parents was a more damning punishment than any angry lecture. Emotions were powerful weapons, and guilt had always been the most poisonous to Nigel, not only feeling it, but seeing it reflected in others. And he saw that reflection in Sydney's eyes. It was something he didn't want to see, something he'd already tried to absolve but obviously hadn't been very successful in the attempt.
Unfortunately, things like that never seemed to happen in the quickest ways.
He shifted again on the lawn-seat, but found unless the thing suddenly morphed into a couch, there was just no comfortable position to be had by squirming around on it. Still, that didn't stop him from trying…and ultimately… failing.
Moments later, he was shocked as his bottom hit the ground and he found himself splayed in an undignified manner on the grass, staring dumbly up at the bench and slowly realizing he'd wiggled around so much, he'd lost his balance and tumbled right off the edge.
Time seemed to freeze. I fell off! A certain creeping sense of mortification started to edge over him, and he glanced around frantically, making sure no one had seen. I fell off a bench in my own bloody garden! I fell… And while the thought echoed in his head, it took a more wry tone: I fell off a bench my own garden… and like a balloon slowly inflating, the idea struck him as being more and more hilarious. The harder he tried to deny it, the funnier it became until, before he knew it, he was laughing out loud.
All thoughts of ruining his new clothes were forgotten as his previous melancholy rippled and melted away. The grass was soft and cool beneath him and he leaned back, resting his head against it and staring into the sky again, laughing in genuine mirth at where fate had ultimately landed him… right in his own backyard, a place where falling off a bench was his biggest problem.
Up in the treetop, the yellow warbler hopped out of sight behind a distant limb, but it could still be heard singing.
She didn't know where Nigel had disappeared to, and while Preston obviously did, he hadn't volunteered the information. She'd been tempted to hunt for him, to just stalk through the whole house and search every inch of the outlying grounds, but realized that wouldn't accomplish anything helpful. Nigel wanted to be alone, and after what she'd said to him, she couldn't blame him.
Between them, they'd developed a tactic of downplaying their misadventures, rarely letting the other know how truly scared or worried they were in any given situation. And after their emotional reunion in Algeria, which had been a much needed exception to the rule, they'd reverted to their usual "I'm okay-You're-okay" philosophy and pushed everything else aside. Now though, she could see she'd tried pushing normalcy too far.
Behind her, she was aware of Preston entering the room, and moments later he was standing beside her. "Lloyd called again, he's on his way now."
She nodded in response, glad for the distraction. "Did you call Claudia?"
"Yes." Preston had loaned the secretary his cell phone to ensure she wouldn't miss the appointment. "Apparently she was already on her way back, she should be here… shortly."
She turned from the window to look at him, somewhat amused by the leery emphasis he'd placed on the word ' shortly'. She could well imagine what thought was running through his mind, for in addition to the cell phone, he'd also let Claudia borrow his pristine Jaguar, and she'd seen the wince on his face when the secretary revved the engine and peeled recklessly out of the driveway. "Did Derek say anything else?"
He shook his head. "Only that he'd be here within the next half-hour."
Sydney nodded again and turned away as a heavy silence stretched between them. Finally Preston moved forward, leaning against the wall just inches from the spotless glass window. Sunlight filtered through his curly brown hair, giving it a rather golden glow. He leveled his gaze at the relic hunter. When he spoke, his voice was quiet but firm. "I hope you're not blaming yourself for anything you shouldn't be."
She jerked at the words as if physically slapped, staring at him with a sudden intensity. "Like what?"
"Like nearly everything."
The reply wasn't what she expected, taking some of the wind out of the urge to start defending her right to take blame. Still, she had caught one thing in the answer to pick on, something he seemed to have said deliberately. "Nearly everything?" she echoed.
Preston casually crossed his arms over his chest. "Yes. Nearly." Perhaps in the past he would have been reluctant to speak what he was about to say, but recent events had solidified something within him. He gauged her reaction and continued. "I'm not going to lie and say you haven't made any mistakes… and I'm not going to offer you any absolutions if you think you don't deserve them."
Wary apprehension seeped into Sydney's eyes. "And what about you? Do you think I deserve them?"
He cocked his head slightly to the side. "I don't think it's my absolution you want."
She exhaled and looked away from him for a moment, then shook her head. "Then how about your advice?" she queried. He'd hit the heart of the matter, and while she did wonder just what he considered her mistakes, she decided she didn't really want to add that burden to her knowledge.
Preston uncrossed his arms and put his hands in his pockets. If advice was what she wanted, he had plenty to give. "I think you should stop making things into more than what they are. Nigel doesn't hate you, and I doubt he blames you for anything he won't forgive… but…" he paused, hoping his words were sinking in. "He's frustrated right now, and when he gets that way he gets defensive and tends to lash out. You were just unlucky enough to set him off."
She shook her head. "Maybe so, but he was right."
"And if he was?" Preston sounded fairly nonchalant. "Would it be so horrible?
Her mouth dropped open slightly. "What?"
"If you were wrong."
Various retorts automatically sprang to the relic hunter's mind before she realized Preston had been leading her along with breadcrumbs and she'd fallen neatly into his trap. The man was more clever than she would have ever imagined. Her opinion of him went up a notch… it wasn't everyday someone got her to admit she was okay with being wrong.
Preston offered her a tight smile, seeing the answer clearly in her eyes. "I think you should go talk to him now."
Talk to him.
The words echoed in Sydney's mind as she walked through the vibrantly lush backyard towards the willow tree. If anyone were to question why her steps were slower than her usual pace, she could always blame it on admiration of the scenery rather than the hesitance she felt at the impending conversation. The yard was after all, undeniably beautiful, spreading back a good four acres, every inch landscaped to picture perfection. It was easy to see why Nigel had chosen it as a retreat.
Her hesitancy only increased the closer she came to the tree. She couldn't walk towards it indefinitely… eventually she'd reach it, and with that she'd have to confront Nigel with more than her trivial observations about grass and flowers.
Yet, before she knew it, and perhaps a little too soon, she arrived at her destination and was forced to table her wary thoughts. At first she saw no sign of Nigel, he wasn't sitting on either of the benches in her line of sight, and he didn't seem to be in the tree itself. She was gearing up to call his name and lure him from his hiding place when her searching glance drifted downward and she caught a flash of dark red material. Recognizing his shirt, she stepped closer, furrowing her brow in the fear something was wrong, but then quickly relaxing when she realized he was lying there by choice, not collapse.
She felt a smile touch her face at the image he presented. He was lying flat, but his knees were bent and his hands were on his forehead, forming a visor of sorts and shielding his closed eyes from the sun. Had she not known how old he was, she suddenly would have pegged him at no more than sixteen. His features were free of worry, in fact, he looked more at ease than she'd seen him in a long time, even before their ill-fated trip to New York. If he knew she was there, or if he cared, he gave no indication.
Finally she took a deep breath. "Mind if I join you?"
The hands guarding his face moved slightly and he opened his eyes a crack to regard her. There was no surprise evident in his motions. "If you'd like," he answered, and moved to get up, but Sydney stopped his progress by coming closer and promptly sitting at his side. She then leaned back on the grass, mimicking his position. He turned his head and glanced at her a moment before returning to his previous state and shielding his eyes again with his hands.
They remained that way in silence for several moments. Sydney couldn't remember the last time she'd lain on the ground just for the sake of it, usually the ground was her enemy or her protector, often being forced to slither along it trying to either escape or sneak up on someone who'd interfered with one of her hunts. It had been a long time since she'd found a welcoming patch of soft grass and just lounged on it, staring up at the clouds the way she'd often done as a child. Of course, the sky above her now was thousands of miles from the one she'd grown up under but it held all the same qualities.
Her nostalgia filled her with a determined sense of hope and she finally found her voice, deciding to broach something innocuous. "Nice view."
"I've always thought so." Nigel agreed, his own voice quiet, as if not wanting to shatter the natural sounds of the garden.
When he said nothing more she chewed her lip thoughtfully and changed tactics, hoping she'd eventually be able to get more than four words from him. "Lloyd's on his way."
"Hmm," he mumbled, but didn't alter his position an inch, not even a twitch. Sydney began to fear the lines of discussion had degraded even farther, reduced to mere wordless acknowledgments. But then the hand at his eyes shifted again and he turned his head towards her. "So what do you think they did with it?"
A relief swept through her she'd hardly known she was holding. Not only was it more than four words, but the tone of the question was plain, not marred or hidden behind resentment or animosity. He was willing to talk, and there was no doubt what the "it" was he wanted to talk about.
She could do nothing but answer him honestly. "I don't know."
The fate of Ichriem had been heavy in the back of everyone's minds, yet they'd scarcely spoken of it since leaving Sid Ifni. Of course she'd given Derek more than an earful of opinions on what should be done with the statue, as had Preston and Nigel, but in the end, the decision was out of their hands. Sydney may have been respected and revered in the world of ancient relics, but her clout and connections weren't enough to grant her any ultimate dominion in the matter. In the end she'd had little choice but to put her faith in Derek and trust somehow the agent would make the right thing happen, just as he'd protected the alchemist's secret from their first adventure.
"Neither do I." Nigel replied, then fell silent again for a brief moment. "We've found a lot of relics Sydney, and I know you probably found a hundred others before we ever met… But have you ever… well, regretted finding any of them?"
She smiled somewhat sadly at him. The question was one she'd pondered many times herself. "If I've regretted finding one, it usually means I never should have gone looking for it in the first place. You have to pick your battles Nigel. You always have to ask yourself how much you want something and how much you're willing to sacrifice for it. Sometimes going after a relic might be a mistake, but if you find it, it's hard to regret." It wasn't hard to guess what was on Nigel's mind. "Do you regret finding Ichriem?"
He stared up at the sky, as if trying to discern something from the drifting clouds. "I don't know. I mean, don't get me wrong, it was incredible to find it," his voice almost seemed to glow at the recollection. "To know something so fantastically complex was built over three thousand years ago, it's almost impossible to comprehend… if I hadn't seen it, I never would have believed it. I still don't understand what happened out there." Then his tone changed, becoming much more serious, tinged with confusion. "I've thought about it over and over… they were men Sydney, and suddenly, they weren't."
The image of those exotic lizards scuttling in confusion through the ruins of the cave was still vivid in his mind. The implications of what apparently befell the platoon of Gurel Nataz hadn't been lost on him.
He shook his head and continued. "We both know there's nothing in the world that could have done that…well, until now I mean. Toss in the fact we basically teleported from that cave back down to the beach…" He sucked in a deep breath, realizing he was starting to ramble and drift from the question at hand. "I don't think I regret finding it as much as I worry I'd regret it later if it ever fell into the wrong hands."
Sydney couldn't argue with his words, as what he said reflected her own feelings. Ichriem was a raw and unknown power, hidden from the world for three millennia and she'd been one of five to not only find it, but to activate its strength. They'd felt its power firsthand, it had tingled through their fingertips and touched their minds with a warmth and light that was beyond most people's comprehension. She reached out and placed her hand on Nigel's wrist, causing his eyes to divert from the sky and look back at her. "We just have to hope that never happens." She lightly squeezed his arm. "Don't worry about a regret you may never have."
Nigel met her gaze with a light smile then turned back to looking up, an activity he pursued for roughly ten seconds before turning back to her. "I'm sorry I lost my temper."
The relic hunter immediately shook her head, squeezing his arm again. She'd been waiting for the right moment to broach the subject and apologize to him, but never suspected he'd attempt it first. "No Nigel. You were right." Noting the startled look on his face she continued, feeling somewhat like a repentant sinner sitting in a confessional. "I wasn't fair to you." She wasn't sure how to continue. She'd never been very good at making complicated apologies, and was even worse at discussing or admitting her own shortcomings. "I let my stress catch up to me and I took it out on your problem before I'd even realized it… you didn't deserve it." She paused and filled her last two words with every drop of sincerity she'd ever held. "I'm sorry."
He tilted his head slightly. True, he'd been expecting her to say something, but somehow thinking about something never compared to actually having it happen. In the time he'd known her Sydney rarely uttered and sincerely meant the words 'I'm sorry', usually just tossing the words out by route to cut off any complaints. Genuine mistakes were usually glossed over with the lesser 'Maybe that wasn't a good idea'. He realized the feelings of guilt she was likely struggling with, not over the minor incident in the study, but with their entire chase around the world. There was little doubt what comprised the mysterious "stress" she suffered from. He suddenly saw she wasn't just apologizing to him for what had happened in the house, she was expressing the grief she felt for everything… For taking him to the conference, for exposing him to The Viper, for his kidnapping, and for every pain and indignity he'd suffered.
"It's all right Sydney," he met her eyes and favored her with a reassuring smile. "After all, 'Aequum est peccatis veniam poscentem reddere rursus.'" ('It is right for him who asks forgiveness for his offenses to grant it to others.') He watched her reaction to the old quotation, and seeing a look of relief steal over her features, he suddenly chuckled, breaking whatever tension was left in the moment. "We're a sorry lot aren't we?"
"Pathetic," she agreed, managing a smile of her own. "I wonder what Horace would say about that?"
Nigel thought for a moment then sat up, feeling a head rush with the movement as the world became vertical once more. At his side Sydney followed his motions and he turned back to her. "'The harder you fall, the higher you bounce'," he quipped, then turned a little more serious. "'Vestigia nulla retrorsum' Sydney." (No steps backward) He stood, then reached down and offered her a hand up.
She looked at him a moment, seeing a spark of the bright inner strength she'd come to so deeply respect in him, then grasped his hand and let him pull her to her feet. As she stood, the lingering doubts Nigel would be able to overcome his harrowing experience began to recede from her mind. While he may been less than half-serious with his quote, she knew it never held more truth than in his case. He would bounce back, higher than ever. "Vestigia nulla retrorsum Nigel."
So it was the five of them were reunited, looking wildly different from the last time they'd been together… Namely this time no one looked like a beleaguered refugee from a disaster movie. Gone were the haggard expressions, the winces of pain, and the weary gestures that had punctuated the latter half of their journey. Hair was combed, clothes were neat and clean, and everyone smelled of soap and cologne rather than blood, sweat, and dirt. Anyone peeping in the parlor window who caught a glimpse of them would be hard pressed to guess where they'd been and what they'd done just a few days earlier.
Derek settled back in his seat, having already exchanged pleasantries with everyone and suggestively teased Sydney about the way their paths always crossed. A tall glass of cold lemonade was in his hand and he couldn't help but eye a large platter of chocolate cookies sitting within arm's length. So far no one had taken any of them, but he held no qualms about being the first. He'd been in constant motion for so long, he'd scarcely had time to snatch more than a sandwich for any given meal in the last three days. Granted, it would probably be rude to grab the tray, set it on his lap, and scarf every last cookie on it… yes it would be rude to do such a thing… which made it fortunate he was a spy, trained in subterfuge. "Hey," he nonchalantly reached over to the silver platter and snagged a cookie. "Cookies."
"Help yourself." Preston encouraged, firm in the role of host.
Derek bit into the treat, hiding a knowing smile… Ah, the magic words. And with his cookie domination insured he took a sip of his drink, incredibly glad it was a tall glass of lemonade and not one of those warm little teacups that seemed to be a staple in British parlors. He sobered somewhat as the thought occurred to him, remembering the last time he'd had warm tea had been in that very same parlor, and it hadn't been a happy occasion. It seemed as though he'd come full circle, starting with sorrow and ending with reunion. "So," he started, deciding to get the show on the road. "Who wants to ask something first?" He nearly laughed as they all stared at each other with a deer-in-the-headlights look trying to decide what to ask and who should ask it.
"Well," Sydney leaned forward in her chair. "I think the first thing we all want to know is what happened to Ichriem."
"Yeah," Derek nodded. "I kinda figured you'd ask that one first." He took a deep breath. "All right, here's the deal," he exhaled. "What happened on Mer de Tueur is considered highly classified." He reached for his briefcase and popped it open, extracting a blue folder. Opening the folder, he produced several pieces of paper and passed them around the room.
"What's this?" Claudia asked, curiously skimming over the first few words.
"It's an agreement of confidentiality," Derek answered. "I'm going to need you all to sign it before I leave. It basically says that you agree not to tell anyone what happened on that island." He studied everyone's expressions. "I would've had you sign it before you left Morocco, but my superiors hadn't decided on a classification for it yet and I didn't have the paperwork. Typical red tape. So I'm trusting none of you have told anyone about this since you got here."
"As if anyone would believe us." Nigel ventured, still perusing the agreement.
"Yeah," Derek agreed. "I think the sci-fi factor alone would just make anyone think you were all nuts."
"So what does this mean?" Sydney looked up, furrowing her brow as a sense of professional ire started to build. "We're never going to be allowed to tell anyone about this? Not even that the statue was discovered or even existed at all?" Without waiting for an answer she carried on. "Doctor Reynold gave his life to prove this legend was real!"
Lloyd smirked. He loved what he was about to say. "I think he might disagree with you."
"What?" she blurted, fervently glad she hadn't had anything in her mouth or she would have choked.
"You mean he's alive??" Nigel likewise couldn't hide his disbelief.
"And kicking," Derek nodded. "We tracked him down in Cairo, not in the best of shape though, he'd been in a clinic there with a couple of broken ribs…one of them pierced his lung and it filled with fluid, so he had a hell of an infection for a while. He was unconscious for nearly a week but finally healed up enough to leave the clinic two days ago."
Sydney was stunned, having thought her old colleague long dead. "How did you find him?"
He laughed shortly. "It actually wasn't very hard. Remember the note he sent you with the model Syd?" At her nod he continued. "The clue was right there, we just never got a chance to check it out when we were in Cairo."
At first Sydney wasn't sure what he meant, not recalling the exact words of the note, then it came to her and she almost felt like groaning. "The man who owned the restaurant." They'd gone to Cairo looking for clues, but after meeting Amarja and being directed to Mer de Teuer, the need to stay in Egypt had passed and they'd never checked the restaurant Artie had directed them to in his note.
"Right," Lloyd confirmed. "El Kadid's. Turns out it's owned by a Belgian named Gaston Dulaque… he and Reynold have been buddies for about twenty years. Anyway, I decided to follow up on the tip and see if the guy knew anything, and he knew a lot. Apparently whenever Reynold is working around Cairo, he keeps this guy's name in his wallet as an emergency contact, so when he turned up at the clinic, the doctor found the name and number and called him."
"He still had his wallet?" Preston sounded incredulous.
"Yeah, I guess The Viper wasn't into picking pockets," Derek shrugged. "Reynold doesn't know how he got to the clinic, and the doctor's couldn't tell him anything either, they just found him lying at the front door."
"Unbelievable" Sydney murmured. "Where is he now?"
"He's still in Cairo. I tried to get him to come here with me, but his kid just got out the hospital yesterday, and neither one of them is really feeling up to traveling yet."
Sydney suddenly had the feeling a permanent question mark would soon start hovering over her head. "Wait a minute, his kid?" She hadn't been aware Artie had any children, much less any who'd been in Egypt.
"His son, Edmund." Derek took another sip of his drink. "He was working with him on the dig. None of you got the chance to meet him, but you did get to see his picture."
He saw a spark of understanding immediately flare in Sydney's eyes, followed only shortly by everyone else… well, everyone but Nigel, who'd never seen the photo. The younger Bailey looked around with a curious expression, almost as if expecting to see the tell-tell picture floating in the middle of the room.
Lloyd decided to save him some trouble. "Relax Nige, you didn't miss anything except a lot of confusion. Amarja had a picture that was taken of her and Reynold and a couple of other guys. It turns out Edmund was in the picture, but we never knew it because she lied about who he was and told us his name was Davis Campbell." He saw Nigel's eyes widen and he continued. "I guess she figured if she told us he was Reynold's son that we'd want to hunt him up rather than run off with her."
"She would've been right," Sydney muttered. But she wasn't sure it would have changed anything… in the end they still would have set out towards the island, following the clues Derek managed to scrounge up about the path of The Viper.
"Yeah, well," the agent continued, "apparently the story she told about him being in the hospital in Cairo was more or less true, even if she did lie about his name. He was kidnapped by The Viper, but it didn't happen the way Amarja told it, she mixed two stories together. Ed wasn't the one who got run off the road and vanished without a trace, that turned out to be Rajiv, the joker in that picture she claimed was her fiancée… or as we got to know him in Morocco: Davis Campbell. And he wasn't run off the road, he set the whole thing up."
"So who was he?" Claudia asked, sounding a little confused.
Derek sighed. "We don't know his real name. Interpol's still checking. He'd been passing himself off as Campbell around the dig site, so that's who Reynold thought he was. He'd only been working there about a month before his so-called "disappearance." He and Amarja obviously knew each other well… that was the reason Reynold agreed to hire him in the first place, because she told him he was her fiancée." He shook his head. "I don't think it takes much of a stretch of imagination to see how the two of them set us up. Rajiv had been tailing The Viper and when he decided to rent that plane, he set himself up as the pilot. He knew as long as he stuck with The Viper and Nigel, eventually Amarja would lead the rest of you to him."
"And that's just what happened." Claudia frowned, recalling how she and the other woman had worked on finding transportation out of that hellhole in Algeria. "You know I thought there was something weird about the way she just managed to find us all seats on a private plane… In the middle of nowhere no less, that just happened to be going where we wanted to go." She suddenly felt like kicking herself. In retrospect it was obvious what had happened, but at the time, aside from thinking it incredibly lucky and a little weird, she hadn't had the luxury of questioning it too much. After all, Amarja had made all the arrangements in Arabic, which made eavesdropping a little difficult.
Sydney was having similar feelings, but realized there was nothing she could do about them, besides, she had bigger fish to fry. "So was Rajiv, or whoever he was, caught?"
The agent wasn't surprised the question came from Sydney, her eyes practically smoldered with hate at the mention of the man, she seemed to hate Campbell more than The Viper. Unfortunately he couldn't tell her what he knew she wanted to hear. "No." He shook his head, looking down at the carpet for a moment before looking up again. He suspected he'd find her eyes drilling into his like a pair of demanding lasers, and he was right. "We swept the area but never found him. I left a few guys undercover in Sid Ifni in case he's hanging around somewhere trying to lay low." He smirked a little. "But if we don't find him you have to remember it's possible he was on Mer de Teuer when Ichriem was activated."
The idea of Rajiv, a.k.a. Davis Campbell, a.k.a. All-Around-Lunatic, being transformed into a tongue-flicking island lizard made everyone in the room adopt Derek's wry smirk.
"You know, I've heard seagulls enjoy lizards," Preston began conversationally.
"Yes." Nigel nodded in agreement. "And hawks."
"Eagles," Preston counted off on his fingers, holding up three.
"Vultures," Nigel returned, causing his brother increase his count to four.
Derek shook his head in amusement. "Other lizards." The two brothers looked to him and he grinned. "You have to admit," he shrugged innocently, "some of them eat each other… I think it'd have a nice sense of irony."
"You guys are so disgusting." Claudia rolled her eyes as if she'd been listening to a conversation between three ten-year-old boys. "Besides, everyone knows lizards are only good for two things: purses and boots."
"Yes," the dry wit Nigel had employed in his banter returned with a vengeance. "How could we forget such a vital portion of the food chain?"
Claudia made a face and stuck out her tongue. "You just don't have any fashion sense Ni-gel."
The young man arched an eyebrow and cocked his head slightly. "I don't? Then I suppose I was having an out of body experience last spring when you borrowed my leather coat… and still haven't returned it."
"Humph!" Claudia miffed. "You think I like your stupid coat? It was cold that day," she defended, "and I haven't even looked at it since then."
"Hmm." Nigel nodded sagely. "So that explains why you were wearing it in all those pictures you showed me from the Alaskan cruise you took last month."
She suddenly looked like a little girl with her fingers caught in the cookie jar. Her eyes widened and her mouth formed a surprised 'O'. She'd forgotten about the snapshots, and the fact Nigel had been the first person she'd showed them to after getting the film developed. He hadn't said one word about the obvious appearance of the coat at the time, although he had made several inquires about the Alaskan weather. She'd fully intended to return the item before it got cold enough for him to need it again… even if perhaps she had become overly attached to it. Her jaw snapped shut. "I was just airing it out for you," she recovered, albeit much too late to be remotely believable. She finally sighed and rolled her eyes. "All right! Fine! I wore your coat, are you happy now?"
"Well, no," Nigel shook his head, a teasing glint still sparkling in his eyes. "Not really. It's somewhat depressing to realize my coat took a better trip this summer than I did."
"Oh, come on Nigel," Sydney patted his arm. "Remember how much fun we had in Denspar while Claudia was on that boat?"
"Denspar?" he echoed, clearly implying she was insane. Visions of their fairly recent jaunt through the forests of Bali came roaring back in vivid color. It had been a failed relic hunt, and while they'd encountered no danger, they did manage to stumble into one embarrassing situation after another… most of them effecting him…a fact that kept Sydney nearly giddy with mirth. "Oh no, don't think I've forgiven you for that."
"That was an accident!" came the automatic defense.
Preston leaned forward with interest, looking from one to the other. "Really?" he looked to his brother and grinned. "And just what happened in Denspar?" he teased.
Sydney opened her mouth and Nigel glared at her, making a sharp noise of protest and holding up his index finger in warning. "Not. One. Word."
"It was funny!" she protested.
"Yes, well, if you think that was funny, maybe I should tell him what happened in Singapore."
Singapore!"Nigel!" she reproached, internally wincing as she realized her tone was the same as one her mother used to employ. "That wasn't funny!"
"Maybe not to you," he quipped, and then, rather than smirk or appear the least bit smug, he flashed his most innocent smile.
She snorted and muttered something under her breath that was likely far from a compliment. Nigel's "Who-me? I'm-so-cute-and-innocent" look worked well to confuse passing bad guys and charm little old ladies, but had little effect on her. She noticed Preston was fighting so hard to keep from laughing out loud, his cheeks had turned pink. Apparently the "look" was nothing new to Nigel's brother.
"I think you're walking on dangerous ground Nige." Derek observed. "Better quit while you're ahead… but," he grinned, "you and I should get together and have a chat when you get back to the States," he turned to Sydney and winked, "I'd personally love to hear what happened to Syd in Singapore." As soon as he finished speaking a soft, cream-colored pillow flew across the room, aimed squarely at his head. He caught it with ease and arched an eyebrow. "Now I know it's something I need to hear!"
Sydney absently groped the couch behind her back searching for another pillow. "Speaking of stories Derek," her eyes bored into his, daring him to make one more comment, "aren't you supposed to be telling us one right now?"
"Well who wants to hear about that any more?" he grinned. "Not when…"
The agent chuckled shortly. "All right." He took another sip of lemonade and soon regained a more serious attitude. "After you left, we had Ichriem boxed up and airlifted off the island, the damn thing was heavier than hell, weighed about two tons. We managed to keep a hush on the whole thing. No one from the Moroccan government ever saw the statue… they saw the box once we got it to shore, but we convinced them the only thing in it was a prototype missile launcher the Gurel Nataz had stolen from our military."
"Clever," Sydney nodded. It sounded like a plan Lloyd would have cooked up. By claiming Ichriem was stolen, top secret military technology, it would effectively stop anyone from trying to peek in the box.
"They didn't have any reason to doubt us, they knew we were after the Gurel Nataz; that was why they approved our initial operation inside their borders. They also didn't think there was anything on Mer de Tueur worth having, so the fact we were taking something from there only reinforced the idea it must have been something the Gurel Nataz had hidden there."
"So where is it now?" Nigel asked the question that floated on the forefront of everyone's minds.
"Well," Derek glanced at his watch. "Right now it's on a C-130 somewhere over the Atlantic. It's being taken to the Smithsonian, they're going to take a look at it and try to figure out what makes it tick." He set his drink on a coaster and leaned forward, resting his elbows on his knees and lacing his fingers together. "I think you should know," he looked around the room meeting everyone's gaze, "nobody really believes Ichriem does what we said it did."
Sydney frowned. "But… your men, on the island… They saw it too didn't they?"
"They don't know what they saw." He shook his head. "The Gurel Nataz opened fire on them from the rocks at almost the same time we activated the statue. My guys didn't even know how many they were up against. One minute they're being shot at by an unknown number of hidden hostiles and the next they've got humming in their ears and see a big flash of light… they didn't actually see anyone turn into a lizard."
It was definitely an interesting revelation, one they hadn't considered. "Well," Preston mused thoughtfully, "I suppose when it comes right down to it, we didn't really see it either. Not one of us can honestly say we saw anyone turn into a lizard right before our eyes."
The five looked at each other as if searching for someone to refute the statement, but they realized it was true: while their minds had drawn the obvious conclusion from the facts, they really hadn't seen anything.
"Right." Lloyd nodded. "And as for that whole teleporting down the cliff deal, it was pretty much the same thing: one minute they saw us at the top, the next, there was a flash of light and we were at the bottom. We could have all just slid down it in a rockslide for all they know. One of my guys actually asked if I was okay from the fall, he sure as hell didn't see what happened."
Sydney shook her head, then cleared her throat. "But even if they don't believe it, what happens when they activate the statue? They'll know." And in her opinion, some things were better kept from the realm of knowledge.
"They won't be trying that for a few months… not until the researchers finish their study. After that, they'll probably take it out of the city to some kind of wide-open space to fire it up." The agent suddenly looked very much like a spy… like a man with a secret he'd never fully tell anyone. "Then I think they'll get a little surprise." He knew they'd likely want an explanation of that cryptic statement, after all, he'd made it cryptic on purpose just for the fun of watching their reactions.
"What kind of surprise?" Sydney questioned suspiciously. Now what's he done?
"The kind that pisses researchers off," he grinned. "After all, what's worse than trying to turn something on and it doesn't work?"
Both of her eyebrows shot up in surprise. "You sabotaged it!?"
"Tsk, tsk," Derek shook his head in mock hurt. "That's such a nasty word Syd… I prefer the term 'modified'. Don't worry, I didn't break anything, the crystals are all still in one piece, I'm not that crazy." He winked, then continued rapidly before anyone could comment on his sanity. "And there's another piece of good news: because of his knowledge on the subject, our buddy Dr. Reynold has been asked to help in the study. He jumped pretty high at the offer, especially after I told him exactly what the statue did. He's agreed that once he gets to the Smithsonian he'll do whatever he can to downplay Ichriem's power."
Sydney felt a rush of tension slip from her shoulders. "That is good news." Not only was she thrilled her old colleague would at last get his chance to see the fabled statue, but the fact he would have an inside track on what information was released about it was doubly good news. "And I suppose you had nothing to do with Dr. Reynold being offered that position?"
"Wellllll," he drawled. "I might have mentioned his name to a few people." His tone became more serious. "I'm not sure how far a little sabotage and a friendly researcher will go to keep it a secret, but it's the best I can do right now. I still have my clearance for the project so I'll have access to whatever the research team comes up with, but aside from that…" he exhaled and leaned back, "we'll just have to wait and see."
The words settled around the occupants of the room like a warm cloak on a blustery winter day. After all the worry over the fate of the relic, a level of welcome comfort came from knowing Ichriem wasn't entirely out of reach as long as Lloyd and Reynold were involved.
"You did everything you could with the circumstances." Sydney affirmed in gratitude. "If nothing else, at least you bought some time."
"Time is easy to buy," Lloyd nodded. "The rough part is waiting for the bill to come." But perhaps with a little luck it would be one bill they'd never be called to answer.
Now, with the two women away (Claudia no doubt hoping to coerce Sydney into letting her take the wheel) and Preston in the kitchen cleaning up the afternoon dishes, Nigel was left to his own devices… And he'd chosen to loll on the couch in the parlor, flipping idly through a book. Once again it was quiet in the house, but it wasn't the uneasy type of silence Nigel felt upon first waking up. This time it was nice… comforting.
Time slipped easily by, unmeasured by the lone occupant of the room until he looked up and noticed his brother return from the kitchen.
Preston recognized the leather bound tome Nigel held, and smiled as he moved into the room, sitting easily on the edge of the coffee table. "Into the old encyclopedia again, eh?" The book was part of an elaborate set once owned by their grandfather, and as children the two brothers had been fascinated by them, even though they'd been published in 1920 and were painfully and often hysterically outdated.
Nigel favored him with a half-smirk, pushing himself into a better sitting posture. "Just catching up on a few things."
"As of 1920?" Preston teased, examining the book a little closer to see which volume it was, not surprised to see it was the letter 'A'. That one had always been Nigel's favorite thanks to an elaborate, full-page illustration of a Model-T Ford under the term 'automobile'. He'd always been fascinated with it for some reason, and Preston could admit, it was a very well done picture, as were most of the slick-papered illustrations in the books. "Were you looking at that car again?"
Nigel stared down at the book a moment before handing it over to his brother, the pages open, sure enough, to the drawing of the Model-T. "I suppose you caught me."
His brother studied the picture, but having seen it so many times in the past, it was long committed to memory. He then closed the volume and set it aside on the coffee table, looking back to his brother curiously. "I don't suppose you're ever going to tell me why you're so fascinated with it?"
"I might," he shrugged, letting his gaze drift back to the encyclopedia for a moment before shaking his head. "If I ever figure it out myself."
Preston wasn't sure if he was teasing him or just really had no clue why he always gravitated to the old book, a habit Nigel seemed to employ more often when something was disturbing him. He decided not to press the issue, knowing there wasn't really a point in bringing it up… if looking at the book somehow made Nigel feel better when the world turned grim, then he had no intention of tampering with the belief. Besides, he hoped what he was about to do would help his brother more than questioning his habits. He reached behind his back and drew a small, somewhat square but still rather oblong box from his pocket, handing it to Nigel.
For his part, the younger man was suitably startled, staring at the box curiously before accepting it. "What's this?"
But Preston merely smiled. "Open it."
Nigel spared another somewhat suspicious glance at this brother before fumbling with the box and ripping away the wrapping paper. He wasn't sure what he expected to find inside… knowing Preston's often-warped sense of humor, it was probably a lucky rabbit's foot to hang on his key chain. So when he pulled the lid from the small box his breath suddenly caught in his throat. Definitely not a rabbit's foot. For what stared back at him wasn't a fuzzy dime store trinket, but a shining Swiss watch… a very expensive one.
He looked up in wide-eyed shock. "I… It's…" he stammered for words, finally coming up with: "This must have cost a fortune! I mean, it's wonderful, but you didn't have to do this."
A ghost of a smile touched Preston's face. "Yes I did," he answered, standing and placing his hands in his pockets. He paced a few steps until he was standing in front of the piano, then picked up the same framed photo of the two of them he'd found himself staring at what seemed like a lifetime ago when he'd gotten the ransom note. He paced back and handed the picture to Nigel. "Do you remember when that was taken?"
Nigel studied the picture curiously and realized he'd never seen it before. It was another of their mother's artistic black and white shots, in it he and his brother were sitting on a set of stark white steps, a Greek column looming not far behind them. He was nine years old, and had already snapped from his pudgy "Podge" state to the opposite extreme, a scrawny little boy with wind tossed hair. "Yes, it was the Parthenon, that summer father was lecturing in Athens."
"Right," Preston nodded, "but do you remember what happened before it was taken? What we were doing?"
Nigel furrowed his brow and studied the picture again to see if it jostled any memories. "I don't know. I remember we'd been there all day, and it was so hot… mother bought us those popsicles… remember? They melted as fast as we could eat them." he smiled at the memory. "I think when this was taken we were getting ready to leave, father had come to pick us up… and we'd been…" Then suddenly the answer came to him and he laughed, remembering exactly what the two of them had been doing before the picture was taken. "Following that tour group around! And you, you were driving that guide absolutely mad!"
"Well he kept making mistakes, I couldn't let that go on could I?" he shrugged innocently. "And I recall you even had a few things to say when he called the Romans Spartans."
Nigel looked chagrinned. "I wouldn't be surprised if he retired after that." He shook his head at the memory and passed the picture back to Preston. "But it was a fun day wasn't it?"
"It was," Preston nodded.
The younger man cocked his head off to the side at his brother's tone. "That's what you wanted me to remember." It wasn't a question.
Preston returned the frame to its place on the piano and was silent a moment. "You know, I was looking at this right before Sydney came knocking on the door with Lloyd, and I could remember every detail about it. It was all so clear and…" he may have been about to say something else, but broke off, looking down for a moment before lifting his eyes. There was an underlying seriousness and sincerity there that gave a new dimension to his words. "I guess I just wanted you to remember we've always been capable of having good days."
Nigel was silent, staring down at the watch and fingering the band, he ran his finger over the smooth, glass face. "I know," he finally answered.
He absently unhooked the clasps that held the watch in the case, taking it in his hand. He wasn't sure he'd ever been given such an expensive present, and he never would have suspected Preston of giving it to him. Even more surprising was it was exactly what he would have picked out if buying it for himself. The realization caused his thoughts to take another track, and he wondered, not for the first time in the last few days, just how well his brother knew him.
He finally turned over the watch to fasten it to his wrist, but froze as something unusual caught his eye. Carefully carved in tiny letters across the back plate was an inscription, and as he read it, he sucked in a shaky breath and stared up at Preston, who was staring back him in anticipation.
The events of the last week clamored though his mind, back to a mere five days before to that broken down Algerian hotel. He'd awoken to the Viper telling him to rise and shine… he'd been sick and miserable, and at one of the darkest, most hopeless points in his life. It still stung to know how low he'd let himself slip, how he'd nearly given up after all the promises he made himself to never to stop trying.
And then, like a puff of smoke from a magic lamp, his brother had suddenly been there, literally and figuratively propping him up. In all his thoughts of rescue, it never occurred to him Preston might tag along on the journey. Yet from what Sydney had told him, Preston refused to take no as an answer, over-riding both her and Derek's protests that he should stay home in case The Viper tried contacting him again. His brother had even footed the bill for every aspect of their transcontinental trip not covered by Derek's government funds.
Monetarily speaking, the kidnapping cost Preston about ₤3,500, which in the grand scheme of things wasn't very much… not even a month's wages to his brother, what with his lecturing at the University of London and his steady job at the museum. The money was something Nigel could repay if asked, but he knew he never would be and the issue would never be discussed. It wasn't the money that was irreplaceable or important, it was the effort and the risk his brother had taken on his behalf, those were things Nigel doubted he could ever repay.
He was, for one of the few times in his life, indebted to Preston, and it wasn't the horrible, gnawing, resentful feeling he'd always imagined it would be.
It was hard to pin down just what had changed between them, as describing it was like trying to catch mist in a bottle. But whatever it was swirled around the words they'd spoken with such heart in the dank halls of a dilapidated hotel. Words that Preston had now immortalized as a reminder in carefully engraved lettering: You'll always be worth more than a watch. To anyone else reading them, the words would likely convey very little, perhaps someone would think it a good joke to carve on the back of a watch. Yet to him, being the words he'd spoken to his brother so soon after thinking him killed, they would always carry a meaning deep into his heart that had never been spoken out loud.
Now, looking at his brother, he couldn't think of anything to say. Somehow 'thank you' didn't seem like enough. Finally he smiled, looking pointedly back at the inscription and back up again. "So will you."
And as Preston smiled broadly at him in return, he fastened the watch to his wrist and stared at it moment, noting the smooth motion of the second hand as it silently tracked the minutes. To him, the watch itself would always be worth more than a watch as well. The injustices, both small and large he'd always blamed on his brother seemed to have faded in importance, many entering the realm of triviality. Perhaps they would return, perhaps their reconciliation was as wispy as the Saharan wind, but he had only to think of the words he'd made Sydney embrace: no steps backward. And he could now finally see the person before him as the boy he'd laughed with as they ate popsicles in the hot afternoon shadows of the Parthenon. "I think I'm hungry," he suddenly announced.
Nigel should have stayed a few more days, he thought, drawing the next FedEx package towards him. He could have helped me sift through all this bloody junk.
But Nigel was safely back in the States, in fact, Preston had spoken with him no more than thirty minutes earlier. Apparently he'd just come from an extensive meeting consisting of his degree advisor, the president of the college, and of course, Sydney Fox. And the outcome was good. He knew his brother had been worried about the status of the semester…confessing he wondered if he'd be allowed to pick up his scheduled course work since he'd missed the immediate start of it. Fortunately the administration was sympathetic and agreed he could resume his schedule since he'd missed no major tests or assignments.
Regarding the package in his hands, Preston shook his thoughts away and studied the label to discern the sender. D.L. Antiquities Preservation? What was that? He gave the box an experimental shake and shrugged, slicing through the packing tape with practiced ease and pulling back the flap. The standard array of packing chips leapt at him and he shook them in the trash, finally reaching in the box to find a folded sheet of paper and something very long and thin wrapped in a thick layer of bubble wrap. He frowned slightly and set the mystery item aside, turning his attention to the letter.
Moments of complete and utter shock had always been rare for Preston, yet as of late, he'd experienced what seemed to be a lifetime of them… and now it seemed he was facing yet another.
As he scanned the handwritten words on the page, his eyes drifted to the bubble-shrouded item on his desk in disbelief, and he stared at it for a long minute before returning his attention to the letter. He read the words twice more, memorizing every one, before folding it over and leaning back in his chair with an expression of deep contemplation. Another long moment passed before he finally reached forward and took the item in his hand.
A misty haze of conflicting emotions reflected in his countenance as he slowly pulled up the tape that held the bubbled plastic in place and carefully unrolled it. Once rid of the protective layer, along with a surrounding of plain brown paper, it was revealed the letter had spoken true. Part of him had absurdly hoped it was a lie.
His fingers lightly traced along the gilded edge, now exposed in all its glory, before he carefully set it back on the desktop and swiveled around in his chair. He regarded the letter one last time, then stood and moved to the other side of the desk, carefully inserting the edge into the paper shredder.
Preston - I know you weren't expecting this, but I had to do something with this thing and figured you were the safest bet.
The small motor whirled as the release was triggered and the paper was slowly drawn inside the shredder.
I couldn't keep it, and I also couldn't give it to Syd or Nigel since we'd be too obvious if someone ever gets wise and comes looking for it. Not that I'm expecting anyone to ever look for it, but I'd rather be safe than sorry.
The tattered strips of the note fell into the receptacle below and Preston reached for them, tearing them into even smaller pieces with his hands.
No one knows I've sent it to you, not Syd or Nige, not even Reynold, and with the exception of them, only Claudia knows this thing even exists. And I don't want you to tell them you have it either.
He opened his fingers and let the remnants of the letter fall like confetti into the wastebasket before moving back to his chair.
The fewer that know the better, and right now, it's just you and me. You're the last link in the chain though, because as soon as you opened this box, it's out of my hands. I know it's going to be a heavy feather to hold, and for what it's worth, I'm sorry, but I think you'll probably agree this is the best way. I'll be in touch if the situation changes, but for now, what you do with it is your secret, I hope you can keep it as well as the Phoenicians.
Lloyd hadn't signed the letter, but then, there'd been no need.
Preston rubbed his hand across his face and took a deep breath to clear his mind before taking Ichriem's golden feather into his hands again. Even apart from the statue it was a work of art, etched with fine lines and graceful detail that celebrated the skill of its creator. Under normal circumstances he would have been thrilled to have part of the fabled statue in his hands, he would have clicked up his heels for joy and run straight to the head curator to made arrangements for a display. But current situations were far from normal.
He was no stranger to responsibility, he'd known it his whole life, although he could admit there were a few times in youth he'd frantically tried to shirk it… several times when his mother urged him to "watch Nigel." He smiled sadly at the thought, hoping wherever their mother's spirit might be, she knew he'd at long last followed her instructions without complaint. He wondered what she'd say now, or better yet, what his father would have said if he'd seen Lloyd's letter and the feather of Ichriem. His father had been an optimist, yet he'd also held a firm grasp of cause, effect, and consequences. Several paternal bits of fatherly advice drifted forward from Preston's memory and he focused on one in particular: You'll know you're growing up when you do something you don't want to do and feel good about it.
At the time he'd first heard the words he could remember wondering why he'd ever do something he didn't want to and be glad about it, but as the years passed he'd gradually realized it to be true. Now, while he didn't particularly want the responsibility of the feather, he recognized Lloyd was right: it was the best way to keep it safe. He carefully re-wrapped the golden relic in its protective bubbles and placed it back in its box, then fished his briefcase from below the desk and snapped it open, placing the box inside and closing the lid.
He took a deep breath and exhaled, running his hand over the leather briefcase before sliding back under the desk. It would yet take a great deal of thought to decide how best to hide Ichriem's secret, but once it was hidden, he doubted even a Phoenician could ever find it again.
The man held a large glass in his hand, heavy with ice cubes and containing a sweet, tropical punch. Overall there was nothing outstanding about him, he was roughly fifty years old and wore a pair of long swim trunks and a loose, unbuttoned cotton shirt that wafted slightly in the breeze. His hair was dark and his skin was tanned, and his eyes were hidden behind an expensive pair of sunglasses. His face was a face that could have belonged to any man.
He took a deep sip of his drink and leaned back against the wooden chair, resting the glass on his bare stomach and enjoying the chill that seeped from the overly-iced drink. Along the beach, he caught sight of a shapely young woman in a skimpy bikini and let his gaze follow her until she vanished out of sight. Anyone who saw him would assume he was man on vacation, and they'd have been right.
After all, his job wasn't perfect. Sometimes he had a bad day… sometimes he had to fake his own death.
He'd been in his business a long time… long enough to take certain precautions against what could potentially happen on any assignment. The thin Kevlar vest he always wore under his clothes while he worked was a special design, the outer layer being filled with a viscous red fluid to mimic blood if it was penetrated. It had fooled more than one person who'd tried to kill him. Granted, the rib over his heart was deeply bruised from the bullet and his mouth was painful and slowly healing where he'd bitten down hard to produce a convincing mouthful of blood, but overall he was well.
Campbell had been a fool not to check his pulse, but then, he'd just been a fool period. And The Viper could never meet his end at the hands of a fool.
The mercenary had watched from afar in Sid Ifni and knew Fox, Lloyd, and the Baileys had found the statue, and he was glad, honestly pleased. He had no real interest in Ichriem, only the money he would have earned for it, and now… well, the statue could rot in a museum or a government basement for all he cared. It wasn't his job to worry about it any more. He was glad to let Fox have it, just as long as the Gurel Nataz didn't.
The Gurel Nataz…the bastards.
His thoughts turned dark. They'd set him up, with no intention of giving him his pay… and for the first time in his 30-year career he'd been used. Used. The word was dirty. Even the coolness of his tropical drink couldn't stem down the heated boil of anger that still rose at the thought. The Gurel Nataz made a grave mistake to betray him, and it was going to cost them.
In a few weeks he'd ease back into life and do as he'd always done, selling his expertise to those willing to pay for it, but this time there'd be a difference. The Gurel Nataz would be his enemy. He would descend on their operations like a misty plague. If he heard of something they meant to steal, he'd steal it first. If he heard of someone they meant to kill, he'd kill the assassin. If he heard of anything they ever wanted, he'd find a way to interfere. The Gurel Nataz had robbed him of half a billion dollars and he was going to get it back through their filthy souls.
No one used The Viper.
Soft steps on the sand snapped his attention back his present situation and he turned his head, letting a pleasant smile touch his face. "Six-thirty already?" he asked, noting the lowering position of the sun and the golden hue slowly permeating the clear blue of the ocean.
The slender woman now standing over him nodded, pushing a strand of blonde hair from her face and favoring him with a smile of her own. "Already," she confirmed.
He rose from the chair and took her arm and together they walked slowly down the shore, back towards the resort. The woman was a guest of the hotel, just as he was, and together they'd shared several enjoyable dinner conversations and taken in a few sights. Their relationship was purely casual, and he found himself grateful they'd met. Her laughter was infectious, her presence was relaxing, and the discourse she supplied was intelligent. He could admit he'd miss her when she flew home the next week, but until then, he planned to make the most of her company. After all, there was always plenty of time to be The Viper, but only a few weeks a year when he was free to reclaim the lost remnant of a man known as Anthony Vezzetti.
"Have you thought of anything you want to do tomorrow?" she asked.
"Not really," he smiled, turning his head to gaze across the waves at the first pink clouds of the early sunset. In only a few hours night would fall, followed by the dawning of a new day. "But I thought we might try the zoo… I've heard wonderful things about the reptile house."
The quotes: "Aequum est peccatis veniam poscentem reddere rursus."" ('It is right for him who asks forgiveness for his offenses to grant it to others.') "The harder you fall, the higher you bounce," And 'Vestigia nulla retrorsum' ('No steps backwards) are attributed to the Roman poet and philosopher Horace (Quintus Horatius Flaccus) who lived from 65 B.C-8 B.C.