July of 2012. Bruce had just returned to London from Alaska with the artifacts hidden in his vest. He takes another array of photos. He orders Chinese for lunch as he’s hiding the slate and molar within a picture frame that he sends to Cora in New York.
Flashback to when he was in London earlier that day. He went to the university to give the artifacts to Doug’s colleague, but when he arrived, he saw the professor talking with two other men who seemed to be pressuring him. Bruce sends a text to Dr. Bailey “change of plans” and Dr. Bailey walks away from the conversation. After UPS’ing the frame to New York, Bruce then goes to an electronics store to purchase a separate laptop that he decides to keep disconnected from the internet so he can safely download the images of the slate.
Bruce describes the slate, that one side contains a map with plants drawn in the margins and the other side has symbols arranged in vertical rows. He concludes that the map is of Lake Baikal in Russia.
He thinks about how Doug trusted him to deliver the package but that he mailed it to Cora instead to protect his career.
Bruce finds the box of research materials from when he worked on the book. He decides to leave London but traveling light. He thinks that while he’s flying west over the Atlantic, he will think of something to tell Doug.
Bruce stuck the chopsticks into the container of beef and vegetables and set it aside. He placed the panel on the back of the picture frame, screwed it into place, and then turned it around to make sure the photograph was centered. It was a picture of the bridge over the Fontanka River in St. Petersburg, one he’d taken years ago. It happened to be where he and Cora had walked, holding hands, before spending an intimate evening together in her hotel suite. They hadn’t spoken in more than twenty years, so Bruce knew that suddenly receiving a package from him would cause her to be suspicious. That was what he was counting on. The note he included with the framed picture simply said that he was traveling abroad and had thought of her. That he hoped she was healthy and safe. He told her not to try to contact him, but to wait and he would be in touch with her soon.
Earlier that day, when his flight landed at Heathrow, Bruce had driven north-east toward the university, looping around side streets and checking his mirrors to make sure he wasn’t being followed. He didn’t see anyone but he had an overwhelming feeling of unease and he told himself that, under the circumstances, it was appropriate to be extra cautious.
As he was nearing the university, he decided to park two blocks over on Gower Street and to walk through Gordon Square Gardens to the building where Doug’s office was located. It was shaping up to be a warm, sunny day, and the park was filled with students studying and enjoying the mild weather.
The Institute of Archaeology was located in a seven-story red brick building on the corner of Gordon and Taviton Streets. When Bruce exited the gardens through a wrought iron gate, he walked toward the entrance to the building, but slowed his pace when he noticed a group of men standing together on the sidewalk. He quickly pivoted and walked in the direction of the Student Center while cautiously glancing sideways across the street. Bruce immediately recognized Professor Bailey, the colleague of Doug’s who was waiting for the arrival of Bruce and the Anchor Point artifacts at any minute. The professor was talking with two other men – or rather, they were talking at him – and to all appearances it did not seem to be a friendly conversation. Bruce was fairly good at reading people; the aggressive demeanors of the men, the disconcerted look on Dr. Bailey’s face. Bruce suspected that the professor was being pressured about something, threatened even. Could the timing be a coincidence? Although he couldn’t know for sure, Bruce decided to trust his instincts.
On the corner of Gordon Street, diagonal to where the men were standing, Bruce stood in the shade against the wrought iron fence near several parked motorbikes and sent a text to Dr. Bailey. His message simply read, “change of plans.” Bruce casually glanced over at the professor and watched as he read the text. Without responding, Dr. Bailey placed his phone back in his pocket and put his other hand up to silence the two men. He then said something that allowed him to suddenly extricate himself from the conversation. He abruptly walked away and Bruce saw him go back into the building, presumably to his office. Message received.
“Now what,” Bruce mumbled to himself. Doug believed that he could trust Dr. Bailey and the other members of the research team to keep the artifacts safe – and a secret as well – but what if he was wrong? He told Bruce that they wanted to get to work immediately on trying to isolate a strand of DNA, either from swabbing the slate or drilling into the molar; knowing that the latter was more likely to yield results. Bruce didn’t mean to delay their research, but he couldn’t shake the feeling that what he had just witnessed was Dr. Bailey being pressured about the whereabouts of the artifacts. True, it appeared to Bruce that he wasn’t easily persuaded to cooperate, but that didn’t mean that those men, or others, wouldn’t try again, possibly with more persuasive means. If the Russians were able to possess the artifacts, then all of Doug’s work up to this point would be lost. He and his team at UCL would be left out of the loop … or worse. If the Russians publicized the fact that Doug removed the slate and molar from the dig site, his career could be in serious trouble.
What was bothering Bruce most was the uncertainty of just how far the Russians would go to steal the package from them; how deep their connections went and just what level of access they might have to him, personally, his phone and laptop. Would they suspect that Doug had handed the artifacts off to him at the airport? If they found out where he lived would they search his apartment, or try to confront him? He knew that they might have agents in London that they could place on alert with just a text message. Bruce decided that he was right to be this cautious and that he needed to try to stay a step ahead of them.
First, a text to Doug telling him that he was running late because of his flight but that he’d be at the university as soon as he could that afternoon. He drove to his apartment, ordered some lunch, and placed his carry-on on his bed while he went into the bathroom to take a shower. His backpack had been forwarded to Anchorage so he’d have to wait a few days for the airline to ship it home. Locking the door behind him, he took the package from inside his vest and the SD card from his sock.
It was tempting to keep the slate with him in his apartment for a few days, to study it himself while reading up on the history that Doug was telling him about, that the hunting party had crossed from Siberia into North America via the land bridge that was submerged beneath glacial melt-water sometime around 8,000 BC. And most interestingly, the presence of the woman healer and what she was trying to communicate. Instead, he changed the lens on his camera and took another array of photographs. He handled the items carefully, wearing latex gloves, and then wrapped them up again before sliding them firmly into place in the back of the picture frame.
At the UPS store, the kid was used to Bruce’s business. He packaged the photograph, labeled it “fragile,” and handed him a receipt. He told Bruce it would be in New York tomorrow afternoon and he could confirm delivery online.
Driving back to his apartment, Bruce stopped at an electronics store. He wondered if he was becoming a bit paranoid, but the possibility that he was being watched, or soon would be, was causing him to be concerned about the privacy of his tech devices. Like most people, he used his phone and his home computer to access both his personal and business accounts. He didn’t know much about hacking, but he thought that if he purchased a new laptop, registered it under a different name, and didn’t connect to the internet or to any of his accounts, including email, that he could safely use it to download the images from his camera.
Back at his apartment, he began to carefully study the images. He’d taken pictures of the artifacts from various angles and with different light settings. The molar was unremarkable, to him anyway. Bruce thought it looked like any modern-day human tooth with the exception of some discoloration in the concave surface. He saved those images in a separate folder and turned his attention to pictures of the slate.
The slate had carvings on both sides. One side contained what appeared to be a map with a large, narrow body of water surrounded by symbols that obviously depicted hills or mountains. Bruce felt a quiet thrill at the realization that he was connecting with the perceptions of a human being who had walked the earth possibly 10,000 years ago. He suddenly understood why Doug had chosen this field of study. He’d said that the image looked to him like either a river or a small sea. Lines were drawn from within the map outward to the margins where there were carvings of flowers, leaves, and roots. Bruce thought that you didn’t need to be an archaeologist to conclude that the woman, if she was the one who had carved the map, was identifying different plant species and indicating where they could be found.
On the other side, the meaning of the carvings wasn’t as straight-forward. In fact, the only symbols that Bruce could recognize with any certainty was a picture of the sun and the moon, some wavy vertical lines that could indicate rain, and circles with stick bodies of varying length, possibly signifying humans of different ages. The rest seemed like random variations of shapes that were either outlined or filled in, curved and straight lines at different angles – all interspersed with smaller images of the same plants and herbs found on the slate’s opposite side. They were arranged in vertical rows, similar to Egyptian hieroglyphs. As Bruce studied each row, he noticed a pattern, that a series of seven or eight symbols were grouped together and divided from the next series by a small horizontal line. He thought that possibly each grouping was a sentence, or a set of instructions?
What Bruce knew about petroglyphs and cave paintings – which, admittedly, wasn’t much – was that they tended to be quite literal. For instance, the outline of an antelope was simply an antelope, and there probably wasn’t any deeper meaning to a drawing other than to tell the story of a successful hunting trip or a bountiful harvest. Bruce thought that in order to decipher what each of the symbols could mean, he had to first determine the context of what this woman was trying to communicate.
From what Doug had told him, he guessed that she was probably a healer of some sort, having developed knowledge about the various uses of plants and herbs, and familiar enough with the countryside to know precisely where they were growing. Doug said that she was probably unrelated to any of the men and women in the hunting party, so where had she originally come from and why was she traveling with them? Why draw a map if those plant species were going extinct? Bruce thought to himself that sequencing her DNA could answer a lot of questions. The forensic archaeologists were able to estimate that she was likely in her 80’s, but that she hadn’t suffered from many of the health problems that they were used to seeing in skeletal remains of that age, such as degenerative arthritis or bone injuries that hadn’t been set properly. With these theories in mind, what could she be trying to communicate and why?
If each grouping of symbols was a particular recipe or formula, the carvings could be explaining how to prepare herbal remedies or when to harvest certain plants, possibly even what types of sickness or injury the treatment was intended to cure. From his work on the manual about Russian herbalism, Bruce knew, for example, that various plants had to be harvested at different times of the year; blossoms and leaves in the spring, roots in the autumn when they were thickest and most potent. The majority of plants were dried and stored away until needed but some could only be used when they were fresh. Also, there were different methods of preparing the herbs before giving them to a patient. Plants are soluble in water, so most were measured and then crushed to release their healing compounds, then boiled and steeped into a tea; one tablespoon of herbs per cup of hot water, taken in exact amounts and for a specific length of time.
Again, Bruce wished he had more information about what Doug’s team was finding out about the condition of her bones and why they seemed to decompose so differently than the others buried nearby. Could this woman have inadvertently discovered a plant or a combination of herbal treatments that caused her to be tremendously healthy and long-lived? If so, what did she ultimately die of? Did she rely solely on memory, on knowledge passed down through generations, or are there other carvings to be found?
What Bruce was growing more and more sure of was that the body of water on the map-side of the slate couldn’t be a river or a small sea as Doug had said. It seemed to Bruce that the outline was carved too precisely. From ground level, a sea would simply be too large to conceptualize its size and shape so accurately without the aid of modern-day GPS. And if it were a river, the entire perimeter wouldn’t be so clearly indicated, nor the shape. It was curved like a backward crescent moon, with sharp juts and recesses drawn into its boundaries that looked to Bruce like small inlets or coves. It was a lake, not a river. Specifically, Lake Baikal in Russia; the deepest, clearest freshwater lake on earth, containing thousands of species of plants and animals that even today are found nowhere else on the planet. Bruce was certain of it.
It was nearing mid-afternoon. Bruce sat down at his desk for a minute to assess the situation. What he knew for sure was, first, that the professor at UCL was expecting him at any minute, and second, Doug was in Anchor Point waiting for confirmation that the team at UCL was in possession of the artifacts and that they were beginning the process of extracting a viable fragment of DNA for sequencing. Meanwhile, the slate and molar were en route to a law firm in New York for safe keeping – and hopefully he was the only one who knew that.
What Bruce couldn’t predict with any certainty was what the consequences would be for his decision to hide the artifacts from the researchers. Doug had trusted him to simply deliver a package. He intended to protect Bruce from any controversy in the event that it became known that the items were stolen from the dig site. In turn, though, Bruce thought that an over-abundance of caution was necessary when his friend’s career was on the line. Their uninvited Russian guests had been alerted to the significance of the slate when they intercepted Doug’s phone call to Dr. Petlov. What if Doug was also mistaken about being able to trust the scientists in his department at UCL? Doug was confident that they couldn’t be easily intimidated or that they wouldn’t be tempted to make some sort of deal to hand over the artifacts. Bruce knew that people often behaved in uncharacteristic ways when money and fame were involved.
He wanted to hold off contacting Doug for as long as possible, to keep them waiting rather than having them react to a sudden turn of events. Bruce and Doug had been friends since they were teenagers. He hoped that when Doug realized what he did, he would trust their friendship, that he’d see through Bruce’s actions and know that if he wasn’t able to deliver the artifacts that he had a good reason, and that he was doing what he could to keep them safe until they could work out a plan.
What was the plan? Most urgently, Bruce thought he should probably leave London – quickly but without drawing attention to himself. He thought it was best if he traveled light, as if he were leaving town for a short work assignment.
In his home office he found the box labeled with the range of months in 1995 when he’d spent time hiking and camping around Lake Baikal. That was over 15 years ago so his research consisted of handwritten journals, envelopes of print photos, and five flash drives. He placed the journals and flash drives in his briefcase, along with his travel documents and the small laptop containing the downloaded images of the slate. Leaving behind most of his photography equipment, he slung his Nikon around his neck, inserted a new memory card and clicked the 35mm lens into place.
While flying west over the Atlantic, he would find a way to get a message to Doug and to explain that the artifacts – for now, anyway – were safe but inaccessible.