Ray sighed and looked apologetically to the man in the kitchen, holding the phone to his chest so that the caller couldn't hear him.
"Look, I'm sorry about this Egon," Ray said quietly before replacing the phone back to his ear.
Professor Egon Spengler just waved his hand Ray's way telling him not to worry about it and turned and left the kitchen so that Ray could have some privacy. Besides he needed to pack for his upcoming trip to Wyoming anyways.
Egon knew who Ray was talking to and why. It made no difference to him that Melody had called collect from China looking for her husband. Ray and his wife were having marital problems and it all stemmed down to their daughter.
Nokomis Cobalt Stantz, born April 15, 1997 had just turned eighteen years old this year and was also a drop-out from High School. His daughter Echo was going on six at the time that Nokomis had been born to her Uncle Ray. Even though Ray and Melody lived in the Bronx, Echo had only seen her cousin a few times growing up. Melody worked for the New York University in the Archaeology Department. Her degree was in historic archaeology and she specialized in the Warring States Period of Ancient China. Melody's job took her and her daughter out of the United States for many months and that is why Echo only got to see Nokomis on certain holidays.
Egon opened the door to his bedroom and after walking through it, made sure it was tightly closed behind him. Ray didn't need him eaves dropping in on his conversation with Melody. When Ray and Melody had first gotten married Ray had been fine with Melody being gone most of the time because of her job, but things had changed after Nokomis was born. Crossing to the closet on his left Egon pulled out a duffle bag from the bottom and placed it on the bed. As he packed the bag he remembered back to when Nokomis had been born.
Melody had gone into labor at their home in the Bronx that the couple shared with Ray's sister Jean and her two children. The only one who was home at the time was Jean's son Robert. He was seven years old and had just gotten off of the bus from school when he walked into the house to hear his Aunt Melody crying from the bedroom. Robert had called his Uncle Ray at work and then sat by Melody's side holding her hand as she delivered a healthy eight pound baby girl on the bed in the couple's bedroom.
"Aunt Melody," Robert said holding up a blue glass bottle that he had gotten from school, "your baby's eyes are the color of cobalt blue pigment used in glassware. We learned that at school today."
Melody smiled at Robert as she wrapped her new born baby up in the bed sheet, "So they are, but you do know that they probably will not stay that color."
"Genetics," Robert rolled the name around in his mouth, "who's that?"
Egon smiled as he recalled having to explain what genetics was to Robert that fourth of July when the three families had gone to see the Macy's Firework display at Hudson River Park. Echo had been sitting in his wife's lap listening to every word he said.
"Okay," Egon heaved a sigh, "one more time. Genetics deals with the molecular structure and function of genes, gene behavior in context of a cell or organism, patterns of inheritance from parent to offspring, and gene distribution, variation and change in populations, such as through Genome-Wide Association Studies."
"What are you talking about Uncle Egon?" Robert asked. "I just want to know why Nokomis will not keep her cobalt blue eyes."
"Robert," Echo said, "I'll explain it."
Echo got up off her Mother's lap and picked up a stick nearby. She then drew a punnett square in the dirt.
"Let's pretend that each of these four squares is what Nokomis's eyes will look like, okay?" Echo told him.
"Okay, I follow you."
"What color are Uncle Ray's eyes?" she asked Robert.
"Brown," Robert replied smiling, "I can see them from here."
"Good," Echo said drawing a capital 'B' on the top of each box. "Let's pretend that this capital 'B' stands for brown eyes. Are you with me so far?"
"Good, now what color are Aunt Melody's eyes?"
Robert walked over to where Aunt Melody sat nursing her baby and looked into her eyes.
"Their green," he replied trotting back over to Echo and her diagram in the dirt. "So that means that a capital 'G' for green goes in these spots," Robert said pointing to the left of the punnett square proud of himself.
"Yes, only this time we use a lower case 'g' too," Echo replied as she drew in the dirt a capital 'G' and below it a lower case 'g'.
"Because green eyes are considered to be less common than brown so scientists explain it with a small 'g'. Do you understand?"
"Yeah, so now what?"
"Now," Echo explained as she started filling in the empty squares, "we add them up. We take the letter from the left and add it to the letter from the top with the capital letter always going in front of the lower case letter."
Robert watched as Echo started filling in the empty squares. Soon two squares had a combination of 'GB' and two squares had a combination of 'Bg'. Puzzled, Robert squinted his face up into a scowl.
"As you can see," Echo explained, "there are two boxes with green eyes and two boxes with brown eyes."
"So if I understand this right there is no chance that Nokomis will have cobalt blue eyes?"
"Correct," Echo said as she placed the stick back down on the ground. "Nokomis will have a 50% chance of being either a brown or green eyed girl."
"Like you," Robert pointed out. "Uncle Egon has brown eyes and your mother has green. That's why your eyes are green. Am I right?"
"Yes," Echo said going back over to her Mother's lap, "welcome to the world of genetics!"
Egon's laugh was cut short as he heard Ray yelling from the kitchen through his closed bedroom door.
"Melody I just can't get on a plane and leave for China today! Nokomis will come back. She always does. She is just being spiteful right now."
"Raymond," Melody's voice could be heard shouting over the phone, "you weren't even there when she was born!"
"I was working!" Ray shot back.
Egon crossed the floor of his bedroom and placed a hand on the knob but before he opened the door he stopped. Shaking his head he retraced his steps back to the bed and his packing. "No," he told himself. "Ray will come to me." Egon knew that to be true. Too many times over the past month Ray had come to him on the verge of tears to talk about Melody and Nokomis. Egon quietly listened as Ray vented his frustrations out on his best friend, often crying in the end. Eden had been right. Melody wasn't Ray's mate.
"I don't think that this marriage between Ray and Melody is going to work out," Eden told her husband as she got ready for bed one night.
"Because Melody is a Leo."
"So?" Egon questioned her as she slid beneath the covers and cuddled up next to him.
"Ben was a Leo," Eden whispered as she shivered holding onto her husband for comfort.
Egon had gently kissed the top of Eden's head that night. Eden had never spoken about her dead ex-boyfriend after they had gotten married. Egon knew about his wife's past. He knew that Ben had sexually assaulted her one night resulting in Eden becoming pregnant. When Eden had told Ben about her pregnancy three months later he had physically assaulted her resulting in the stillbirth of the child that she carried. Ben had tried to kill Eden that day when Iris, Eden's roommate at the time, came to her rescue. Iris had saved Eden by breaking Ben's neck but Iris had been scarred for life because of it.
In the end Melody wanted out and had told Ray so right after Nokomis's birthday party.
"After all Raymond," Melody had told him, "she is now old enough to take care of herself at eighteen. She doesn't need to see us fighting with each other."
Nokomis really didn't need to see her parents fighting and that was one of the reasons that she had started failing in school and finally dropped out her senior year. Each parent, not meaning to, had tried to make the other one look bad and Nokomis had fought back the only way she knew how. She started running away from home.
The first time was when she was sixteen years of age. Echo had just turned 22 years old in December when Uncle Ray had called up the next day on Christmas to tell Egon that Nokomis had left. Echo, her boyfriend Daniel, and Egon had gone looking for Nokomis. Echo had found her sitting in the snow in Davenport Park by the bank of the Long Island Sound crying her heart out. Echo had brought Nokomis back home to her parents, but that had only been the beginning. Nokomis had taken to leaving the house whenever her parents fought. Sometimes she came back a few hours later and sometimes she came back days later. Nokomis had even stayed away a week once when she had just turned seventeen.
Ray shook his head as he held his tongue. Getting mad and yelling at his wife wasn't going to bring Nokomis back any quicker. She always came back when she ran out of money or got hungry but now things were different Ray told himself. Nokomis had never left Melody's side when they were out of the country. She just didn't do that. They were never really in any one place for too long so Nokomis never became familiar with the city or town. "Yes, this time was different," Ray told himself.
"Look Melody," Ray spoke softly, "I'm sorry about yelling at you. I will see what I can do to get to you. Where are you staying at?"
Ray jotted down the address where Melody and her fellow archaeologists were at and thanked her before hanging up the phone. How in the world had this happened? Nokomis had been missing for eight hours and Melody had just now called him. "Calm down," Ray told himself, "Melody was probably looking for Nokomis all this time and just now was able to get to town and find a phone." Ray sighed and sat down at the kitchen table staring at the paper in his hands.
Melody was at the Ruins of Ancient Loulan in China some 300km northeast of Ruoqiang. She had told Ray that the expedition of archaeologists were staying at Korla Licheng Garden Hotel in Korla, China. Ray knew where China was and that Korla was in the Xinjiang province but that's where his knowledge ended. He needed help and knew that he was going to have to get his best friend involved in his personal problems.
"Egon," Ray called out.
Ray heard footsteps and then saw the door to Egon's bedroom open. Ray tried to hold back his emotions but when Egon crossed the room to sit by his side at the kitchen table, placing a hand on his arm, Ray lost it.
"Nokomis ran away," Ray choked out running a sleeve across his wet eyes.
"Where was she?" Egon asked.
Ray looked up at Egon. Like all those times before, Egon hadn't judged him and always asked the same question every time. It really was a starting point for Ray, Egon, Echo, and Daniel to start looking for his daughter. They had done this before, each taking a different direction. But somehow Ray didn't think that it would work this time. Melody and Nokomis were in China. It wasn't like being in the Bronx. China was bigger and he didn't even speak the language. Melody did and Nokomis only a little bit.
"Loulan China," Ray replied.
"The ruins?" Egon questioned.
Ray watched as Egon's face went white.
"Ray that area is called 'the forbidden zone' for a good reason," Egon whispered.
"Because of the difficult elements there," Egon answered. "A trip to the Ancient City of Loulan is not recommended for the casual tourist or individual backpacker. The journey is difficult and the environment harsh with temperatures between day and night extreme. Vehicles are not allowed any closer than 18km to the ruins so you have to walk or ride a camel the rest of the way. You are advised to bring enough water and food to last for at least fifteen days and wear striking colored clothing so that rescuers can spot you easily."
"How do you know?"
Egon looked away from Ray before he answered him, "Our department lost a good man to that area last year."
Ray didn't push Egon any further about what had happened. Death was a tough subject for Egon to deal with. First he had lost his father, then his wife, and this year his mother. Ray knew that Katherine's death was fresh on Egon's mind that day.
"So, where do I go?" Ray asked. "How do I get to Loulan China, let alone find Nokomis?"
"I think the first place that we need to start is at Melody's work," Egon replied rising from his chair and walking towards the back door. "Come on, I'll drive. We need to pay a visit to the Associate Professor of East Asian Art and Archaeology."
The office was simple in design with a large picture window looking out onto 84th Street. Filing cabinets sat to the left if you were standing in the doorway and to the right was a bookcase filled with antique Chinese figures and books. A wooden desk sat in the middle with two chairs for visitors in front. Behind the desk sat Professor Lillian Lan-ying Tseng buried deep in some Han Dynasty writings she had spread across her desk. She was in her mid-forties, of Taiwan descent, with short black hair. Squinting her eyes up she opened the top door of her desk and produced a large magnifying glass. Turning back to the document, she looked closer.
"Now that can't be right," she said as a knock on her door could be heard.
"Enter!" she announced absorbed in the writings.
Ray, followed by Egon, entered the room to find Professor Tseng muttering to herself as she followed the ancient Chinese writing with her finger on the document before her.
"A dark day cometh in the second month of the new year. A day that evil will come forth to destroy all that is good. Two demons will return to lead the way, demons that had been vanquished by good long ago. The end of the world cometh quickly through evil powers and will devour all that is good if they are not stopped. All manors of plagues will occur to the human race. Will there be any one who can save the fate of mankind?"
Professor Tseng followed along the ancient text still muttering to herself unaware that she had two visitors standing before her desk.
"There can be a savior for that day if sacrifices are made by all. A story is told from days long ago of a trio of men that will come. They will come from the east and gather all the evil unto them as they go. They will go to five places on the earth destroying all the evil before them. Lives will be lost on both sides but good will overcometh evil in the end."
"Now what is that supposed to mean," she said to herself, as she finished reading and placed the magnifying glass down on her desk.
"I have no idea Professor Tseng," Ray said, leaning on the cane he held in his right hand. "Melody and you are the only ones that I know of who study ancient Chinese history here at the university."
"Raymond!" Professor Tseng exclaimed, "I didn't see you come in. What brings you down here?" she said as she indicated with her hand for the two men to take a seat.
Ray and Egon proceeded to sit down in the two chairs facing Professor Tseng's desk as Ray placed his cane on the floor next to his chair. He first introduced Egon and then proceeded to tell Professor Tseng why they were here. Ray told her about Melody's call and Nokomis's disappearance.
"Egon thought it best to see you first before I left for China," Ray finished.
"And for good reason," she said as she picked up her phone and dialed a number, "One of the great mysteries in Chinese history is the disappearance of the ancient city of Loulan. The world-famous city ruins of the Loulan Kingdom were swallowed up by the shifting sands of the Taklamakan Desert some 1,400 years ago. The area has also claimed modern human life too. Most recently Professor Robert E. Harrist from Columbia University."
Ray saw Egon look down at the floor as Professor Tseng spoke Robert's name. He had never personally met the professor, but he did know that Professor Robert E. Harrist was the man that Egon had worked under when he came back to New York City from Ohio in 1989.
"Excuse me a moment please," Professor Tseng said as she spoke into the receiver of the phone, "Ethan, it's Lillian. Look I need for you to bring everything you have on Loulan China and come to my office right away. Melody's daughter has gone missing. Thanks," she said as she hung up the phone.
Roughly ten minutes later a young man in his early thirties with short, light brown hair, carrying an olive drab colored shoulder bag walked into Professor Tseng's office.
"Lillian," the man said, "I figured you wanted a rematch on our game of weiqi last week when you called. I had no idea that Melody's daughter was in trouble."
Professor Tseng introduced Professor Ethan Harkness to Ray and Egon as Ethan proceeded to pull books, maps, documents, and photographs out of his shoulder bag and place them on Professor Tseng's desk.
"Melody was extremely interested in the ruins at Loulan," Ethan told the two men. "You see Loulan was the capital of the 36 kingdoms in the western region of the Han Dynasty as well as an important thoroughfare on the ancient Silk Road. Among the articles found there besides the woman mummy they call "Loulan Beauty" was a precious hand-written copy of the Strategies of the Warring States Period."
"Melody's interest," Ray stated.
"Correct," Ethan answered unrolling a map. "Here is present day Korla," he said pointing at the map as Egon and Ray looked on. "The Ruins of Ancient Loulan are here," Ethan replied as he moved his finger down the map and to the right, following the Kongque River to stop by the northwestern bank of Lop Nor.
"But why would Melody want to go there?" Egon asked. "Surely the document that she wanted to study is at a museum or library by now."
"Melody was interested in trying to prove that bronze tools were introduced to the Chinese people and not invented in China like the Chinese have stated in their writings," Professor Tseng replied.
"You're right Lillian. Believe it or not the Silk Road in China went both ways. Items came into China as well as silk going out. Just imagine if one were to find a Bronze Age seafarer in America, it would obviously create worldwide controversy," Ethan said as he opened a book. "The Han Chinese considered themselves to be occupiers of the center of the world. Everyone else were savages in their eyes, so the discovery of Europeans on their territory meant that their cherished self-opinion was wrong."
Consulting the book Ethan continued, "DNA tests were conducted on a dozen of the mummies found at Loulan and the results backed up Melody's theory. While it is clear that the early inhabitants of the area were primarily Caucasians it is equally clear that they did not all belong to a single homogeneous group. Rather, they represented a variety of peoples who seem to have connections with many far-flung parts of the Eurasian land mass for more than two millennia."
"So if I understand you correctly, China is genetically a mixture of different races, contrary to the political idea of theirs that they are of 'pure genes'?" Egon asked. "Like living in New York City. A big melting pot of people all living together and sharing their genes."
"Correct," Professor Tseng answered. "It puts a whole new meaning on the saying 'Sleeping Around'."
"So what has that got to do with Nokomis running away?" Ray asked.
"Way back from the beginning of the discovery of the ruins of the Loulan Kingdom by Swedish explorer Sven Hedin there have been tomb raiders and looting," Ethan explained laying down the book that he had been reading from. Picking up the photographs he handed them to Ray and Egon.
Looking at the photographs the two men could clearly see graves that had been unearthed, with wooden coffins torn open exposing skeletons, some badly desecrated. Ray's hands started shaking with anger and he handed the photographs off to Egon. From his life with Melody, Ray could never understand why someone would do this to history.
Ethan continued as Egon examined the photographs, "Over the years the local police authorities have tried to deal with the problem to some extent."
"You see," Professor Tseng said, "the cash profits to be made are enormous. Why an intact colored coffin can fetch up to a million yuan in Urumqi."
"That's one hundred twenty thousand dollars in U.S. money," Ethan stated pointing a finger at the photograph Egon held in his hand of only a skeleton, with no coffin, tossed out into the desert sand. "But the loss to the nation in terms of its cultural heritage is incalculable."
"But you still didn't answer Ray's question," Egon pointed out handing the photographs back to Ethan. "What does any of this have to do with Nokomis running away?"
"Professor Spengler what you may not know is that Nokomis was Melody's field technician," Professor Tseng answered him.
"Correct," Ray answered, "Nokomis was always good with a Total Station transit."
Egon nodded his head. A Total Station transit was a tool that allowed archaeologists to make an accurate three-dimensional map of a site. He had used one back when he was an assistant to Professor Harrist.
Professor Tseng continued, "If Nokomis had an artifact on her and there were tomb raiders nearby then maybe she didn't run away after all."
"But wouldn't someone from the expedition have seen this happen?" Ray asked getting scared now.
"Not if there was a dust storm that sprang up," Ethan answered. "The best time to go to the ruins is in the spring or autumn but dust storms can happen at any time. There is also another possibility."
"What?" Ray asked.
Ethan looked towards Professor Tseng. Ray could see that something clearly was upsetting the man who stood before him. Something he didn't want to talk about. Professor Tseng dipped her head slightly and sighed before she spoke in a quiet voice.
"Raymond, there is also the possibility of human trafficking."
Ray sat there shocked. Human trafficking. No that couldn't be. He must have heard wrong. Not his daughter. This wasn't happening to him. He felt a hand and looked over to see Egon's hand on his upper arm. If anyone knew how he was feeling right now it would be his best friend. Egon who had lost so much, including his daughter for a short period of time. Ray vaguely heard Professor Tseng explaining.
"Trafficking for forced labor remains a notable problem in China even today," Professor Tseng said quietly. "Most of the work is in brick kilns, coal mines, and factories which operate illegally and take advantage of lax supervision in the poorer regions of China. There continue to be reports that children are forced into…," Professor Tseng trailed off unable to finish her sentence.
How could she tell the man sitting before her that his daughter was probably doing things right now against her will? She shook her head and looked to Ethan for help.
Ethan finished Professor Tseng's thought. "Reports have come out of Xinjiang province of forced child prostitution. There has been a rise in 16 to 20 year old girls as the main target for forced marriages."
The room fell silent. Ray couldn't say anything and sat there staring at the floor, shaking his head back and forth. He felt like he was going to be sick to his stomach. Not his Nokomis. Not his precious daughter. All he could think about was getting to Melody as quickly as possible and trying to find his daughter.
"When can I leave for China?" he asked to no one in particular.
Professor Tseng picked up her phone and dialed a number as she spoke to Ray, "As soon as I can get you on a plane. Don't forget your passport."
"I'm going with you," Ethan said gathering his things.
"I can do this alone," Ray said as he raised his face from the floor to look at Ethan.
"When was the last time you were in China?" Ethan asked.
"I've been to Paris before."
"That's in France," Ethan stated placing his items back into the shoulder bag. "And I know from Melody that that knee of yours is starting to give you trouble these days, right?"
Ray nodded his head. He had had his right knee replaced by Doctor Elton Strauss back in January of 2008. Now seven years later he was having problems with it and Ray was looking at another operation next year.
"Ray," Egon said, "I think it best if you have someone who knows the area and speaks the language to go with you. I wish I could go but…" Egon trailed off.
Ray knew what Egon was going to say. Egon was leaving on a trip with his daughter and Daniel to Wyoming in a week. They were taking the Venkmans, the Tully's two twin boys, the Zeddemores, and the Riveras. They were going to be meeting Echo's Grandfather Parnell in the Teton National Park where he was a Park Ranger now. If it was only him and his daughter going Egon would follow Ray to China, but with the amount of people and planning that it had taken Egon couldn't pull out now.
"Egon, it's fine," Ray said as he placed his hand on top of Egon's. "Just pray that we find Nokomis."
Egon nodded his head and smiled at his friend. Indeed he hoped that Ray could find his daughter. Egon hated to think of Nokomis as a prostitute somewhere in Beijing or Shanghai with the local population being over twenty million. It would be like having to find a needle in the proverbial haystack.