Monday, November 28, 2011

Love Letter

"Lorie, come check this out."

Lorie left the side of the sarcophagus and moved across the burial chamber, skirting the oily black pool that dominated the center of the room. Her torchlight reflected in strange patterns off the surface of the water. For a brief moment she thought she saw something dart away from the light into the depths of the pool, but the water didn't stir. She shook her head sharply.

"Shades of the Damned," she muttered. "No matter how often I do this the heebie jeebies never seem to go away."

"What's that?" Corwen asked. Despite the fact that this was his first trip to the field, and his first entry into a genuine Egyptian tomb, her grad student seemed unperturbed. Even "The Curse," boldly chiseled into the lintel above the entrance to this chamber, had failed to faze him. Not that Lorie gave any credence to ancient Egyptian magics – that would be absurd – but that didn't prevent her from getting the shivers every time she trespassed into one of their sacred demesnes.

"Nothing," she said as she stepped up to him. He was examining a narrow pillar running from the floor to the ceiling of the chamber. "What have you got?"

"I'm not sure. Does the placement of this pillar look odd to you?"

Lorie ran her practiced eye over the area Corwen was indicating. Now that he mentioned it, the placement did look odd. It took her a moment, but she figured it out.

"It's not load bearing," she said. "It's got another purpose."

"That's what I thought!" Corwen was nodding his head, excitement bubbling through his words. "And look at this. You stand right there."

He positioned Lorie in front of the pillar and then moved off to the side, directing his flashlight beam so it would strike the pillar's front face at an angle. As the light struck the pillar, various raised portions of the stone cast shadows. To Lorie's amazement, the shadows coalesced into a recognizable pattern. Hieroglyphs! She tried to read them, but they kept flickering in and out of existence.

"Your hand isn't steady enough for me to read this. Bring the work light over." As Corwen went to fetch it, she added, "And make sure you keep the cord clear of the pool. There's something in the water."

Corwen raised an eyebrow. The edge of his mouth twitched up in what Lorie recognized as a slight, intentional expression of mockery.

"It's got some kind of oily substance on the surface, you dweeb. I don't know what it is and I don't want to have to clean it off later."

Corwen's expression blossomed into a full grin as he turned away from her.

"Students," Lorie muttered. "Why I let them get away with such blatant disrespect...." She trailed off as Corwen brought the work light over. It wasn't disrespect, she knew. She had always cultivated very casual relationships with her grad students. She even insisted they call her by her first name. She found that they were more open and honest about their opinions when they felt more relaxed. If that meant she had to put up with teasing every once in a while she at least contented herself that she gave as often as she got.

Corwen set the tripod down and adjusted the twin halogen lights. The hieroglyphs sprang into sudden clarity.

"There! Lock them in right there," Lorie said. He twisted the locking screws, and then joined her in front of the column.

It was strange seeing the familiar Egyptian picture words formed by shadows. She had read papers about secret carvings discovered by archaeologists in the twenties and thirties, but grave robbers had destroyed any actual examples of such things, as had misguided scholars more interested in what they might find behind the written facades than the writing itself. What she saw here was clever in the extreme. Torchlight would never been consistent enough to allow the message to be read; Corwen's inability to hold even the constant beam of a flashlight steady enough was proof of that. How had it been made? Using sunlight was the obvious answer, meaning the stone had been carved elsewhere, then installed here. But for what purpose? Lacking a source of constant light, who would be able to read it?

"This doesn't make any sense," Corwen said.

Lorie turned her attention to the writing itself. She saw immediately what he meant, but decided to use this as a teaching moment. "Why not?"

"It's just a constant string of unilateral characters. There are no bilateral or trilateral glyphs, no logograms, and no semagrams. Except for the cartouche here, this is all gibberish."

Corwen was right. Egyptian hieroglyphic writing was a complex affair. Characters could mean different things depending on how they were placed, which glyphs went before and after them, whether they were taken as literal representations of what they depicted or used phonetically. Lorie had always thought it interesting that although the Egyptians had unilateral characters - glyphs that represented the sound of a single consonant - they never used those symbols to simply spell out words as with the modern alphabet. Wait….

"This is alphabetic writing." She had said it out loud and she still wasn't sure she believed it. Corwen's tone echoed her own doubt.

"That can't be right. The Egyptian scribes never wrote that way."

"But look." Lorie pointed to the first line of the script. "N-f-r, that's 'nefer:' 'beautiful.' And these would be 'flower,' and this would be 'Nile.' And then you have the cartouche representing the name 'Naksutifi.' Read out phonetically this reads 'Naksutifi, my beautiful flower of the Nile."

She knew as she spoke that she was right. The entirety of the shadow writing was written the same way. Almost like a code. What kind of message was this, so completely hidden that the ancients would never have found it, and then encoded in case it was?

"It's a love letter!"

Corwen's voice pulled her back from her musings. She had been so caught up in wondering why the message had been created that she hadn't even looked to see what it might say.

"Corwen, a love letter in the tomb of Amenhoten, the Egyptian warlord? Such a romantic you are."

He blushed. Lorie was glad to have gotten him back for the jibe about the pool, and then she saw that he was right. The message WAS a love letter.

"Grab my notebook. Let's see what this says."

* * *

It took more than two hours of careful work. Corwen had been in the thick of it with her. He hadn't understood all the words, but his pronunciation of the unilateral symbols and the subsequent Egyptian words grew noticeably better the further they went. The lack of punctuation, compounded by the lack of vowels and the odd syntax of ancient Egyptian, made the work difficult, but she thought she had the translation.

"Okay, here goes," Lorie said. "Naksutifi, my beautiful flower of the Nile. If you read this, it is because Set has heard my prayers and answered my petition. I fear I have doomed myself to eternal servitude to the Dark One, but I could not let your murder go unanswered. We were betrayed by Osiris himself. Though we were on his errand, his priests struck you down, extinguishing the brilliance of your essence before it was your time."

"'Brilliance of your essence?'" Corwen interjected. "Come on."

Lorie shot her student a look. "It's a love letter, Corwen. I'm allowed to take a few liberties with the language in order to give it the proper nuance. Do you want to hear this or do I stop now?"

He held up his hands in mock surrender. "Sorry, professor. Please continue."

She snorted at his sarcastic use of her title and went back to reading. "I suspect he wanted you for his own. This could not go unpunished. I made Osiris pay. I heaped anguish and sorrow on all those who called out his name. I reaped a harvest of death and destruction - all for you. It should have been enough, but I could not bear the thought of him finding pleasure in your presence. With the help of Mighty Set, I have cheated him of your very soul. Be strong, my flower. You are the dawn set free from Darkness. Live. Let these words proclaim it."

There was a momentary pause. "That's it?" Corwen asked.

"That's it. Save for that last bit down there at the bottom. I can't combine those letters into any recognizable words."

Corwen moved to the pillar and squatted to see the symbols at the bottom. "Maybe they're in a different language? We could try reading them out loud and see if it sounds like something else. Let's see. 'Apopsi manatiri kala….'"

Lorie listened carefully as Corwen spoke the syllables aloud. It was nonsense. There was nothing to it. If it was another language it was nothing she had ever heard before. She opened her mouth to tell him to stop when a cold seized her so profoundly she couldn't speak.

* * *

Corwen finished the last syllable. "What do you think, professor?" The words had scarcely escaped his lips when the two 1000-watt halogen bulbs of the work light suddenly dimmed to the level of candles. He turned, thinking the power cord had somehow entered the pool. What he saw was far worse.

The water of the pool frothed and boiled. An unearthly green glow emanated from the depths, growing brighter by the second. Lorie stood transfixed by the water's edge, unmoving.

"Lorie! Lorie, back away!"

Corwen took a step, and then froze as terror such as he had never felt petrified his limbs. A dark shape swam through the water in tightening spirals, drawing ever closer to the surface. With a sudden burst of green, the shape lanced from the pool and drove right into Lorie. Her eyes widened in pain, and she collapsed to the ground.

In an instant, everything was as it had been. The work lights glared harshly over the pillar. The water of the pool was still. Corwen could once again move. He rushed to Lorie's side. She was cold, but her pulse was strong and she was breathing. He sat, pulled her head into his lap, and pushed her hair back from her face.

She stirred and her eyes opened. They were a brilliant green. The look she gave Corwen lacked any sign of recognition.

"Lorie? Are you okay?"

Her eyebrows came together, and then widened as she held up a hand in wonder. "I am Naksutifi. I live!"

Monday, April 11, 2011

"The Package"

"He did what?"

"Lawrence Carpini skipped town. He left a message for you."

I took the phone from Jones and keyed in the repeat code. It was bad.

"Hey, Lieutenant Miles. Carpini here. I've been doing some thinking, and I'm afraid I have some bad news. You see, my analysis has shown that staying around to testify against Malzone would be bad for my health. Sorry to skip out on you, but the seaweed is always greener in somebody else's lake, so to speak. At least, that's what Sebastian is always telling me. I thought about heading to Canada, but he had something to say about that, too. You dream about going up there, he says, but that is a big mistake. So maybe Mexico. I know this quaint little spot there where my package and I can be kept safe. Don't come lookin' for me – I ain't givin' it to ya. Only Sebastian knows where I can be found, and he has a way with words."

That was it. The slimy weasel was leaving town less than a week before the trial. His testimony on Malzone's accounts was critical to the DA office's case against Malzone, and the files he had promised to deliver were going to be the nail in the coffin. And now he pulled this.

I slammed the phone back into the cradle. Jones flinched.

"What now, lieutenant?"

"Send out an APB on Carpini. Maybe we'll get lucky."

Jones' expression told me he didn't think that likely. I agreed with him.


As much as I wanted to drown my sorrows at Ditka's, it was my turn to watch Sophie and Jeanine would kill me if I spoiled another one of her nights out with her friends. I normally enjoy the one on one time with my daughter, but tonight I just couldn't get Carpini's message out of my head. It replayed over and over again. My anger had worn off, replaced by a nagging since of doubt. Something
about the message just didn't make any sense.

Sophie handed me a naked DVD and I dutifully put it in the player. She clapped her hands and plopped herself down on the floor as I returned to the lazy boy. This was cheating, I knew. I was supposed to be spending time with her, not letting her sit mindlessly in front of the TV, but I needed the time to think.

What about the message was off? Some of the phrases were strange, but Carpini would turn a strange phrase from time to time. The man considered himself a bit of a poet. I'd always known him to be quite articulate, choosing his words carefully. Maybe that's what he'd done in this case. Maybe he was trying to tell me something beyond what the words conveyed.

I ran through the message again. The seaweed line was something Carpini would say, though he had attributed it to this Sebastian character. I wasn't sure who that was. Maybe Sebastian Porter, one of Malzone's old business partners? What did he have to do with this? If I could figure that out, I might be able to understand what Carpini was saying. The parts about Canada and Mexico where obviously there to throw others off the trail; there was no way Carpini would spill where he was headed. "My package" obviously referred to the financial records he was supposed to provide the DA's office in exchange for immunity from prosecution.

The next line was interesting. Carpini had slipped into a Chicago accent as he said it – a far cry from the cultured English and flawless grammar he usually used. "I ain't givin' it to ya," he had said. It was the only line in the whole message spoken that way. Maybe he used the accent to emphasize it. Maybe he pointed it out to let me know he was lying. I ain't givin; it to ya" may have been his way of telling me he still intended to give me the package even though he, himself, was bailing. Malzone surely knew that Carpini had spoken to us. Carpini had to know that he was safer with Malzone behind bars. Even if he ran Malzone would come after him. The financials would ensure Malzone was put away. Maybe Carpini had left them somewhere for me to find. If that was the case, maybe the key to the package's location was hidden in the message.

I thought it over for a while, but nothing came to me. I glanced at my watch. It was 7:35 – time for Sophie to hit the sack.

"Come on, munchkin," I said, "time for bed."

"But Daddy, this is the best part."

Reggae music filled the room as a the red crab in Sophie's favorite movie burst into song.

"The seaweed is always greener, in somebody else's lake. You dream about going up there, but that is a big mistake. Just look at the world around you, right here on the ocean floor. Such wonderful things surround you, what more is you lookin' for?"

My mouth dropped open. Those were the exact lines from Carpini's message.

"Under the sea...Under the sea...darling it's better...."

What was that crab's name? Sebastian, wasn't it? "Sebastian knows where it can be found." My mind made the mental connections and threw out the memory of the headline on yesterday's society page in the Trib. I scrambled for recycling bin where I yanked out the paper. It took a few moments to find the page.

"Under the Sea – New exhibit opens at the Shedd Aquarium."

Bedtime forgotten I tore my cell phone from its holder and dialed the precinct.

"Call the Shedd Aquarium," I said when Jones answered. "We need immediate access."


The director at the Shedd was very accommodating. Within ninety minutes we hada crew at the Aquarium turning the exhibit upside down. The search lasted more than four hours with no results.

I smashed my fist into my open palm. "This can't have been a coincidence. It's got to be here."

"I don't know what to tell you, lieutenant," Jones replied, "There's nothing here. The director wants us out so they can set things up for tomorrow."

I shook my head. This had to be it. The package had to be here. How had I missed it? Had I been wrong about Carpini's intentions?

As we exited the exhibit room my eye fell on the sign. "Under the Sea" was spelled out in large brass letters that practically leapt off the wood base. My mind ran through the message one more time. I had been so certain. The last line echoed in my brain.

"Only Sebastian knows where I can be found, and he has a way with words."

A way with words. I had thought that was a throwaway line – but what if it was significant. A way with WORDS.

On a hunch I approached the sign. My fingers felt around behind the letters. There was a space there. I found the flash drive behind the letter "S."

Under the "Sea."

"Carpini, you are one clever weasel." I stowed the flash drive in my pocket.

Next time I had my alone time with Sophie it was ice cream for sure, and her favorite movie. Maybe I would even sing along.

Tuesday, February 22, 2011

"Legally Impotent"

This story is to fulfill the challenges for "Courtroom", "Secret Garden", "The Lottery", "Mr. Marvel's Magical Colored Pencils", and "Love Potion." The love potion aspect makes this a little more risqué than I usually like. You have been warned.


"All rise. This court is now in session. The Honorable Pinson R. Winthrop presiding. The gallery may be seated."

"Who's first on the docket today, Officer Jensen?"

"Mabery versus Mabery."

"Are the Maberys in the courtroom? Come forward. Swear them in, Jensen."

"Raise your right hands. Do each of you swear to tell the truth, the whole truth and nothing but the truth, so help you God?"

"I do."

"I do."

"They are sworn in, your honor."

"Very good. Each of you has declined to have counsel present for this hearing, is that correct?"

"Yes, your honor."

"Yes, sir."

"This is a preliminary hearing. Each of you is allowed to present evidence to justify a full hearing at a later date. The only decision to be arrived at today is whether or not a full hearing will be held. Do each of you understand this?"

"Yes, your honor."

"Yes, sir."

"Very good. Mr. Mabery, as you are the claimant in this case we will start with you. Will you please state your complaint against the defendant."

"Yes, sir. My wife stole a million dollars from me and I want it back."

"I did no such thing!"

"Mrs. Mabery, I'll ask you to keep quiet while we discuss your husband's claim. You will have your chance to present your own side of things. Is that understood?"

Pause. "Yes, your honor."

"Good. Mr. Mabery, that's a very large sum of money. Why haven't you taken your wife to criminal court?"

"Well, uhm, the circumstances are a bit odd, sir. I wasn't sure I could get criminal charges to stick."

"I see. Why don’t you tell me the whole story."

"Yes, sir. See, about six months ago I won the lottery."

"Ah, so you're that Randy Mabery. I thought I recognized your name. You took home approximately fifty million dollars after taxes, isn't that right?"

"Yes, sir. Truth be told, I wasn't comfortable having all that money. What was I supposed to do with it? I'm a simple man, your honor, and I like living a simple life."

"Yes, I heard that you gave most of the money to charity."

"Yes, sir. I kept a million on the advice of a friend. I figured we could live off the interest and I could spend my time fishing."

"Stupid %$#& idiot...."

"Mrs. Mabery! I warn you, I will not tolerate profanity in my courtroom. You have been warned once already for speaking out of turn. Unless you wish to be charged with contempt of court, I suggest you keep your comments to yourself. Do I make myself clear?"

Pause. "Yes, your honor."

"Please continue, Mr. Mabery."

"Well, as you can tell, Lindsey here was none to happy with my decision. She wanted to keep all the money and live the high life. After I gave the bulk away, she demanded I give her 'her half' of the million I invested or she'd leave me. Lindsey was always going on about leaving me for this reason or another; I figured this time was no different. It was about a month after that she tricked me into signing her over the full million."

"She tricked you into signing a legal document giving her control of your portfolio?"

"Yes, sir."

"May I see the document?"

"It's here, your honor."

"Jensen, please?" Pause. "This document seems in order. It's even signed by a notary, a Ms. Owen."

"Yes, your honor. That's her standing over there. She was in on it."

"You claim you were coerced into signing the paper?"

"Yes, sir."

"And how did that occur?"

Pause. "They used a love potion on me, sir."

"Come again?"

"Ms. Owen keeps this secret herb garden in the woods out back behind her house. My wife and her spend a lot of time out there, them and their other witch friends. When I wouldn't give her the money they brewed up a love potion to use on me. At that time I was thinking about leaving her myself, she was giving me so much grief. Then she prepares me this nice dinner, and was all apologetic and the like, and made sure I drank this fancy cocktail she had seen on a 'cooking show.' Married for twelve years and this is the first time she ever gave me a fancy cocktail. Next thing I know, I was having these feelings for her like I hadn't had since before we were married and I was like, 'Let's go upstairs right now' and she was like 'Yes, let's, but first why don't you sign this paper.' And I was so...I wanted her so bad right then that I'd have signed anything. And then Ms. Owen steps out of the kitchen and signs the form right after me. Then they just left me there in the kitchen in my...aroused state. It took two days for the effects to wear off. By that time they had control of my accounts and were holed up at Ms. Owen's place plotting ways to spend it. I managed to get an injunction to freeze the money pending this hearing and here we are."

"Mr. Mabery, that is without a doubt, the most preposterous story I have ever heard."

"It's true, your honor. Ask my wife."

Pause. "All right. Mrs. Mabery, is this wild tale true."

"Yes, your honor."

Pause. "Excuse me."

"It is true, your honor."

"So you're saying you and Ms. Owen actually brewed up a love potion to entice your husband to sign over one million dollars to you?"

"Yes, your honor."

"And you actually admit to it."

"Of course. See, your honor, as far as I am aware, it is not actually illegal in the state of Illinois to use a love potion to influence someone's financial decisions. So what if I used a love potion? How is that any different than using sound logic to change someone's mind?"

"It matters if the concoction you gave him altered his mind to a point where he wasn't in possession of his faculties."

"I have here a list of the ingredients of the potion, your honor, as well as sworn affidavits from three local doctors affirming that the ingredients themselves and any combination thereof are completely harmless and without mind altering effects."

"Jensen." Pause. "Interesting. So what you are saying, Mrs. Mabery, is that you dosed your husband with an impotent love potion."

"I'm, saying that the love potion was legally impotent, yes, your honor."

"Legally impotent. That's a new one on me. How do you then explain his temporary change in behavior?"

"I'm sorry, your honor, but I don't see how it's my responsibility to explain anything having to do with Randy's behavior. It's not my fault he gets so...ahem, 'randy' when he thinks he's going to get some."

"I see." Pause. "Very well. Is there any other evidence to be offered in the case?"

"No, sir.

"No, your honor."

"Very well. It is my decision that there is insufficient evidence in this matter to move to a full hearing. This case is dismissed. You are excused. Jensen, what do we have up next?"


Lindsey Mabery snickered as she and Ms. Owen watched her soon to be ex-husband storm out of the courthouse.

"Well, that was certainly entertaining," Ms. Owen said.

"Yes. To be honest, I wasn't sure it was going to work. The affidavits we provided seemed so...fake. I mean, look, they were written out in colored pencils, for goodness sake."

"That's the power of Mr. Marvel's products, dearie. The recipient sees what he expects to see." Ms. Owen gave Lindsey's hand a squeeze. "Now, what say we go get that injunction lifted and spend some of your money?"

"Yes, let's."

As they walked down the steps Ms. Owen giggled.

"What," Lindsey asked.

"You said the potion was 'legally impotent.' That tickles me pink."

"I could have said Randy was legally impotent. It would have been just as true." And they laughed together.

"The Archer"

The archer stood alone in the wood. He had known this day would come, but he hadn't expected it would come so soon, or for this reason. He had been so careful, had taken dozens of precautions, had layered contingency upon contingency.

All were undone.

He stood alone by choice. Others would have come, but he would not allow it. Not for this.

Those who counted him their leader had always followed blindly, their loyalty freely given in exchange for rescue from their oppressors. He was their savior, both physically and figuratively. Not only had he provided them food and shelter, he had given them purpose. They were prepared to die for him for the loyalty thus inspired. This he could not allow and stay true to his principles.

Those who counted him their friend had followed out of trust. His friendship had been proven time and again, his planning and foresight tested and found sufficient for their common cause. These were prepared to risk life and limb for his happiness, for they knew he would do the same for them. This also he could not allow. It was not in his nature to ask for help when that help would benefit him alone. It was a contradiction. He would give that help freely for another – had done so many times – but even so, to ask was not in his character, and he would not change.

He could hire others to fight this battle. God knew his enemy had done so from the start, was doing so even now. What mattered the loss of the life of one who valued life as naught but coinage to be fought for and won? Life was of infinite more worth than mere coinage. What was money, after all, but a way to manipulate through the baser qualities of greed and selfishness? He had used this to his advantage, enraging his enemy as he took what was his and then simply gave it away. No. To rely on the hired thug was to be no better than those he opposed. He could not and remain himself.

And so, the archer stood alone in the wood. Stood for his principles. Stood for love.

"This is your final chance, rogue. Come forth now or we will kill her, lady of the court notwithstanding."

The archer stepped forward, his bow held low, his head held high.

"Stay your hand, Sheriff. I am here."