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Firebird (Alex Benedict Novel)by Jack Mcdevitt
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.
"Peer," said Alex, "you remember my associate, Chase Kolpath. Chase, Professor Wilson."
"Yes. Of course." He smiled politely. "I believe we've met somewhere, haven't we?" Then he plowed on, not waiting for an answer, which would have been Yes, several times. "No, there is some slight resemblance to one of the Korbanic codas. But it's purely superficial."
"Professor, do you have any idea what language it might be?"
"May I ask where this object is at the moment?"
"At the home of a client."
"I see. Doesn't he know what it is?"
"The owner is a young woman. And no, she seems to have no idea."
"Yes. Well, I wouldn't get too excited about it, Alex. I assume you'd like me to research it for you?"
"If you would."
"Ordinarily, I'd expect a consultant's fee. But as it's you—" His lips parted in a contemptuous smile.
"Nitwit," Alex said, looking up. "Chase, I've been checking on the previous owners of Gold Range number twelve."
"At one time it belonged to Somerset Tuttle."
"Tuttle? The guy they called Sunset? Who was always out looking for aliens?"
"That's the one."
"He's been dead a long time, hasn't he?"
"Twenty-five years. Give or take."
"You think the tablet was his?"
"If it was his," I said, "the language probably doesn't make any difference."
"Why is that?"
"If he'd found it in an archeological site somewhere, and it had any value, he'd certainly have known about it. I doubt it would have ended its days as a lawn ornament."
"That would certainly seem to be a logical conclusion. Still, it seems like an odd thing to keep around the house. Let's look into it."
"Okay, Alex, if you say so."
He smiled at my skepticism. "Stranger things have happened, young lady."
"How did he die, Alex?"
We were still in his office in the back of the country house. A light symphony was playing on the sound system, and he was splayed out on the lush sofa he'd inherited from his uncle. "Sunset Tuttle enjoyed sailing. He used to go out on the Melony. One day he sailed into a storm. The wind caught one of the booms, swung it around, and clipped him in the head with it. He was alone, but there were witnesses in another boat. They got to him as quickly as they could, but—" Alex shrugged. "He had a reputation for being preoccupied. Not paying attention to what he was doing. He was 139 years old at the time. I wonder if it's possible—"
"If what's possible, Alex?"
"That the tablet is from an alien site."
I laughed. "Come on, Alex. There aren't any aliens."
"How about the Mutes?"
"The Mutes don't count."
"Oh? Why's that?"
I gave up. Alex likes to think he keeps an open mind, but I was thinking how sometimes it's too open. "So what are you saying?" I asked.
"Well, I don't know. It makes no sense. He spent his life looking for aliens. If he found them, Chase, either living or otherwise, any evidence at all that they existed, he'd have put it all over the media."
Alex keeps a couple of tabitha plants near the window. He got up, inspected them, and got some water for them. "His colleagues laughed at him. Lectured him for wasting his life. If he'd found the slightest evidence, he would not have held it back, believe me." He finished with the plants and sat down again. "Maybe it's time we talked with the great man himself."
"Jacob," I said, "does Tuttle have an avatar?"
Jacob needed a moment. "No, Chase. He was apparently a very private person."
"I guess that's a result of all the ridicule," I said.
"How about his wife? Did she have an avatar?"
"How many were there?"
"Three. India, Cassa, and Mary."
"Can we reach any of them?"
"They've all passed away. The last of them, India, died just last year."
"So which ones had an avatar?"
"Okay. Which years were they together? He and India?"
"From 1380 until 1396."
"Did they have any kids?"
"He had one child. Basil. And before you ask, he seems to be still alive."
"Good. Can you connect me with him?"
"Unfortunately, Alex, I have no link. Or address. His last known residence was in Foxpoint."
"On the other side of the continent?"
"No. Not that Foxpoint. This one's out in the desert in the southeast. But he moved several years ago."
"Okay. See if you can track him down." He smiled at me. "Somebody has to know something," he said. Then back to Jacob: "Get us through to India."
Moments later India Beshoar blinked on. She had lush brown hair, a good smile, a great body, and deep green eyes. Of course, everybody looks good in avatar form. You ought to see mine. "Hello," she said. "Can I be of assistance?"
Alex introduced us. Then: "India, you were married to Sunset Tuttle."
"Yes. That is correct." Her expression did not change. No happy memory there.
"Were you together in the house at Rindenwood?"
"We were. Why do you ask?"
"What was he like?"
"Sunset? Basically, he was a decent man."
"He lacked some social skills."
"May I ask, in what way?"
"This is difficult for me, Mr. Benedict."
"I'm sure it is. India, Chase and I are trying to do some historical research, and that sometimes requires us to ask personal questions we'd rather leave alone. But it really doesn't matter now, does it? Since you've both passed on."
"I guess not." Those green eyes looked my way for sympathy. "He didn't take his vows too seriously." I nodded. You can't trust guys, I was telling her. We all know that. "The best way to describe our marriage was that I always felt alone."
"I'm sorry to hear it."
"I'm sorry to say it. But it was my own fault. I knew what he was before I married him. I thought I could change him." She shook her head. "I was old enough to know better."
"What did he care about?" I asked. "Other than the hunt for aliens, what was important to him?"
"Aliens were all that mattered."
Alex showed her an image of the tablet. "India, do you know anything about this?"
"No," she said.
"Could it have been in the house, or in the garden, when you were there, without your knowing about it?"
"How big is it?" Alex expanded it to actual size. "No," she said. "I would certainly have known. Why? Is it valuable?"
"That's what we're trying to determine," he said.
She shrugged. "Wish I could help."
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