Antiquities are… remnants of history which have casually escaped the shipwreck of time.
– Francis Bacon, The Advancement of Learning
1431, TWENTY-EIGHT YEARS LATER
"Chase, I may have found something of interest." Alex's voice, over the internal comm system, sounded dubious. Maybe he had something, maybe not. I was just getting ready to tackle the morning's work, which consisted primarily of calculating charges for our clients and getting out the monthly billing notices. It had been a good year, and if current trends continued, Rainbow Enterprises would experience breakout earnings.
Interest in antiquities tends to move in cycles, and we were currently riding a wave. People wanted not only ordinary stuff, lamps and furniture from the last few centuries, but they were getting in line for rare, and sometimes unique, items. We'd just moved a chair that had belonged to E. Wyatt Cooper for a quarter million. Cooper had departed the scene more than a century ago, after a writing career that had appeared undistinguished. But his reputation had grown since his death, and today his vitriolic essays had become a staple of the literature. One who took mockery to the highest levels could expect to be defined as "cooperesque."
Jacob, who'd started life as the house AI for Alex's uncle, Gabe, had noticed the chair when it was put up for sale by a young woman who had no idea of its value. We'd intervened, getting to her before anyone else did, informed her of its value, and managed the subsequent auction. And, if you're wondering, yes, we could have bought it ourselves at a price that would have constituted virtual robbery, but Alex never took advantage of anyone, except those blowhards and would-be cheats who deserved it. But that's another story. Suffice to say that Rainbow Enterprises did not want to be perceived as disreputable. Our income resulted from putting clients in touch with one another. And our clients tended to be generous when they made twenty or fifty times what they'd expected for a hand mirror or a bracelet. It was essential to the business that they trust us.
Jacob had a long history of locating valuable antiquities amid the junk offered daily at the Rees Market, BlowAway, Ferguson's, and other online sites.
"Take a look, Chase," Alex said. "You'll probably want to follow up on it."
"Let me know what you decide."
I asked Jacob to show me what he had. He produced two pictures of a pale white stone tablet, taken from different angles. The tablet was rounded at the top, not unlike some of the markers in the cemetery adjoining Alex's property. Three lines of symbols had been engraved across the front of the object. "Actual size," Jacob added.
It was a bit less than half as tall as I was, an arm's length in width, and a few millimeters thick. "What's the language?" I asked.
"I have no idea, Chase. It looks a little like the Late Korbanic period, but the characters don't really match."
"Angle it a bit."
The bottom wasn't smooth. Someone had used a laser to cut it loose from its base. "It appears to be a clumsy effort," Jacob said, "to reduce the size in order to make it fit somewhere."
"Or to remove it from the original site. Who's the owner?"
"Madeleine Greengrass. She's a tour guide at Silesia Park."
"What does she have to say about it?"
"Not much. She says it's been a lawn decoration at her house as long as she's been there. She's giving it away. Wants to get rid of it. Haul it off, and it's yours."
"See if you can get her for me."
I went back to the billings, but I'd barely started when a small, light-skinned woman appeared in the middle of the room. Her blond hair was cut short, and she looked tired. She wore a park ranger's uniform and was in the process of straightening her blouse while simultaneously drinking from a steaming cup. The scent of coffee came through. "What can I do for you, Ms. Kolpath?" she asked, putting the cup down.
"I'm interested in the tablet."
"I'm at Rindenwood," she said. "You know where that is?"
"I can find it."
"Good. Gold Range, number 12. It's on the front porch."
"Okay. We'll be over later today."
"It's all yours. But you'll need a couple of guys to haul it out of here."
"Ms. Greengrass," I said, "where did it come from?"
"It was here when I bought the house." She looked away. I got the impression she was checking the time. "Listen, I'm running late. Take the tablet if you want it, okay? I have to go."
Alex was seated in the conference room, studying the pictures, which had been blown up to make the symbols clear. Behind him, an overcast sky pressed down on the windows. It was the first day of autumn. Despite the threatening weather, a few sailboats were out on the Melony. "Wish we could read it," I said.
"If we could, Chase, it wouldn't be half as interesting. Jacob, get me Peer Wilson." Wilson was an expert on all things Korbanic.
Jacob said okay, he was already on it, and Alex wondered aloud how old the tablet was.
"We have a recording," Jacob said, and played it. It was audio only: "This is Dr. Peer Wilson. I am currently unavailable. Leave a message."
"Peer," Alex said, "this is Alex Benedict. Give me a call when you can, please."
"What do you think?" I asked. "Is it worth anything?"
"Hard to say, Chase." I knew what he was hoping: That it would turn out to be a remnant from some forgotten colony world, seven or eight thousand years old. Something from the very beginning of the Great Emigration. "Where's she been keeping it?"
"It's on her front deck now."
"I mean, where's it been the last few years? It looks as if it's been out in the weather."
"In the garden, I guess. She said it was a lawn decoration."
He sank into a chair. "Even if it is Late Korbanic, it's only going to have minimum value. Unless it turns out to be Christopher Carver's gravestone. Or something along those lines."
Carver, of course, was the Korbanic hero who'd gone missing three centuries ago while walking in a park. "It looks like a grave marker," I said.
"I was kidding."
"I know. But it does look like a marker."
"All right. Let's get the stone."
"Jacob," I said, "get Tim on the circuit."
The lifting would be done by a couple of guys from Rambler, Inc., which provided a variety of services for Rainbow. Its manager, Tim Wistert, was a quiet, reserved guy who looked more like a bureaucrat than a mover. "Two guys?" he said.
"It looks heavy."
"Okay. But we won't be able to get over there until late this afternoon."
"Okay. I'll meet them there."
Peer Wilson might have been the tallest man in Andiquar. He'd been around a long time, probably more than a century. His hair was beginning to lose its color. But it was stiff like prickly grass, and stood straight up, making him seem even bigger. He had a neatly trimmed mustache, and he made no effort to hide the fact that he disapproved of the way Alex made his living. Wilson, like many in the academic community, considered him a glorified grave robber.
Alex had signaled me when Wilson's image showed up, and the conversation had already begun when I walked into the boss's office in back.
"—not Late Korbanic," Wilson was saying. He was seated in his office, behind a nameplate, awards prominently posted along the wall behind him. Northern Linguistic Association Man of the Year. The Gilbert Prize for Contributions to Historical Research. The Brisbane Award for Lifetime Achievement.
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