Bruce lands in Chicago for a layover on the way to Alaska. He is surprised by Doug meeting him there instead of in either California or Anchorage. Doug is distraught. He tells Bruce about removing the slate and a molar from the dig site so that the Russians couldn’t confiscate them. He needs to get back to the dig so he asks Bruce to take the artifacts to his colleague in the UK. Bruce agrees. They make the exchange in the men’s room. Bruce photographs the slate and then places it in the front of his vest. Both men book flights going in different directions.
Bruce hunched down a little to look out of the airplane window at a cloudless blue sky being reflected on the Great Lakes of the northern United States about 35,000 feet beneath them. Like most lakes this far north, they were formed at the end of the last ice age when a retreating glacier carved deep basins in the volcanic rock.
As he was boarding his flight in London, Bruce texted Doug to tell him that he’d gotten his message, leaving out the specific details about meeting up in California instead of Anchorage. When he didn’t receive a response he hoped that it was because Doug also was being cautious or that he was busy working with local and state authorities to resolve the dispute at Anchor Point so that they could quickly resume their work.
With the nine-hour time difference, Bruce figured that the confrontation at the dig site had happened about 17 hours ago. The student he spoke with said they hadn’t seen Doug all evening. One possibility, Bruce thought, was that Doug had changed his mind and he would be in Anchorage to meet him when his plane landed. He wished Doug had forwarded the images on the slate to him so he could get some idea about what the Russians wanted them for. Was it similar to other findings dating back thousands of years that they’d unearthed somewhere or found painted on a cave wall? The safest scenario would be that if the Russians had intercepted the call between Doug and Dr. Petrova, they might simply be on a fact-finding mission in the spirit of academic competitiveness; if there was a new discovery with historical implications, the Russians wanted to be the ones to complete the research and publish the findings before anyone else had the chance. And Bruce knew that they weren’t above stealing to ensure that happened.
Bruce finished his tea and handed his cup to the stewardess as she passed his row. The seat belt sign was on and as the plane began to descend into Chicago, he watched the quilt-like patches of color slowly fill in with the sharp details of hi-rise buildings, roofs of homes with fenced in yards, solid green woodlands and parks, and eventually the distant runways of O’Hare airport. His layover was about an hour, just enough time to check for a text or email from Doug and to decide whether he should try again to reach him or just focus on making his connections and meeting him in California.
As Bruce exited the jet way, he powered up his phone and slung his carry-on over his shoulder. The crowd sifted around him, making their way toward the baggage claim area, while he stood and searched the scrolling flight numbers on the overhead board. His connection to Anchorage was on schedule, but Concourse H was on the other side of the airport so he had to hurry. He found arrows pointing to a hallway on the right and he turned to stride in that direction.
“Bruce!” Suddenly, he heard his name, low and urgent. He looked back in surprise to see Doug walking toward him. A baseball cap couldn’t hide a thin streak of blood that had seeped through a bandage near his eyebrow. As he got closer, Bruce could see that there were dark maroon droplets on his shirt collar. If Doug was here in Chicago, Bruce guessed that he’d driven away from Anchor Point, possibly to an emergency room and then straight to the airport, not stopping home to shower and change. Something must’ve happened that made him unable to wait until Sacramento – or even Anchorage – to meet with Bruce.
“Doug. Good to see you.” The men embraced for a moment and then Doug grabbed Bruce’s arm and led him toward the food court. Their friendship had always been a close mix of shared personal interests and a similar dedication to their careers. Even when they hadn’t seen each other in a few years, it never took them long to feel reacquainted. Doug was clearly agitated, though, almost to the point of drawing attention to himself, and Bruce had never seen him like this. Bruce guessed that he was being followed and that he had either sensed it or that the men had purposely shown themselves in order to agitate him. Doug was an academic with a quiet nature and he didn’t travel much. He wasn’t used to this.
“Bruce. Just listen for a minute. I need your help with something.” He glanced over his shoulder and then around at the crowd behind Bruce.
“No problem. One of your students called and told me about the guys showing up at the site. He said one of them was real unfriendly and that you took off to try and get things sorted out.”
“Yea, I got your text. As I drove away from the dig site, the Alaska State Troopers were on their way in. The students are just treading water until we know what’s going on. Sure did hit the internet pretty fast,” Doug adjusted his cap. He took a breath and slowed down. “Long story short, a researcher with credentials from the National Library of Australia claims that the manuscript copies of the “Cook Papers” belong to them, that since the originals were never found then the copies become the sole property of the NLA just as if they were part of the original document. Said we had the obligation to collaborate with them and now they’re shutting us down until we do.”
Bruce glanced carefully around them. It seemed to be the usual scene of exasperated parents, young people zoned in on their phones, introspective business men just wanting to get where they were going. He didn’t notice anyone watching them, but he knew that the pros could blend into a crowd when they wanted to. “Is any of that credible? Why are the Australians in possession of these documents to begin with if Cook was British? And they’ve had months to respond. Sounds like they’re stepping in now only because you actually found something.”
“Well, on Cook’s first two expeditions, he made detailed maps of the coast of Australia and New Zealand, so the British Museum sold the journals to the NLA sometime in the 1950’s. And, yea, another thing we’re looking into is the time factor. The fossilized mammoth and other skeletons are indisputably from a prehistoric era and aren’t connected to the Cook expedition in any way. We think that the men really only have a claim on the actual manuscript copies, and good luck with that. We didn’t find anything underground related to the reason for the dig in the first place.”
“Why the guns, then?”
“Well, because of this,” Doug reached into his pocket, his eyes filled with trepidation. He slid a ripped piece of newspaper across the table to Bruce with what looked like an alpha-numeric code written on it. “Information about the slate wasn’t released to the media. The only outside contact about it was my department at the university and a phone call to Dr. Petrova. And these Russian guys? They showed up within half a day. The timing couldn’t possibly be a coincidence. The Australian traveling with them who supposedly represented the interests of the NLA was the only one who seemed to speak any English. We think that their bullshit about ownership of the manuscript copy was just an excuse to gain access to the site. And possibly to create a diversion so they could steal some of the artifacts.”
Bruce was thinking that his friend had caught on pretty fast after all. He remembered that his student had said that after Doug had been hit in the head, he walked into the tent to get a towel. “This looks like a global tracking code for a package? Did you remove something from the site?”
“Uh, yea. And in doing so violated a federal law punishable by jail time and a 20K fine. Not to mention the breach of professional ethics,” Doug said, “And I involved you.”
“The slate?” Bruce asked.
“And a molar from the woman’s mandible. I hid them in a towel that I used to stop my head from bleeding. No one suspected a thing at the time but I’m not sure if the students were able to keep the men from going into the tent where they were working on the woman’s skeleton. I drove home and wrapped them up as carefully as I could. I didn’t see anyone following me, but on the off chance that there was, I boxed up some books from my office at home and mailed them from the UPS store here in the airport to a colleague at the Smithsonian. I hoped it would either be a diversion or a way to buy some time until I could find a way to get the artifacts to my department at the university.” Doug sat back in his chair, relieved. “I’m sorry, but I need to involve you in this.”
“What do you mean? You have them here?”
“Yeah. Right here in my coat. Could you take them back to the U.K. with you? To my guys at UCL?” Doug handed Bruce his phone. On it was a picture of him wearing a dark blue tie, posing with an older man at what looked like a social event on campus. A trusted colleague in his department.
“Again, if there was any other way. The responsibility for this is all on me. You’re just dropping off a package for me and you have no idea what’s in it. Meantime? I need to get back to the site. Make sure the students are ok.”
“No worries. It’s safe with me.” He’d missed the plane to Anchorage but now, a change in plans. He would instead book a flight home to the UK and then locate Doug’s colleague.
“I knew it would be. I owe you.” The men stood up, hugged again, and said goodbye. Bruce headed to the front desk while Doug quickly downed a cup of coffee. There wasn’t a direct flight from Chicago to London until the following day, so Bruce bought a ticket for one that afternoon with a three-hour layover in Toronto. He’d be in the U.K. at 7:45 the next morning and would go straight to the university.
In the men’s room, Doug gave Bruce a flat, square bundle wrapped in brown paper, silently patting him on the back and then hurrying away to book his own flight back to Anchorage. Bruce went into a bathroom stall and latched the door behind him. He carefully removed the tape and unfolded the paper and bubble wrap. From his carry-on, he took out his camera, attached the lens, and put in a blank SD card. Carefully holding the slate up to catch the light, he photographed each side several times and did the same thing with the molar.
After removing the memory card and placing it in his sock, he re-taped the package and carefully tucked it into his waistband. He zipped up his vest and left to catch his flight home to London.