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DREDGING THE PAST
Callum, Catherine, Seth, and Lelani drove into the town of Amenia, New York, weary from the events of the past two days. A fresh dusting of snow had descended on the small locality, which emanated three blocks in all directions from a center traffic light. The Sunoco gas station tucked in one corner was the intersection's largest presence, joined by a bank, salon, and empty lot on the remaining corners. Its citizens, dressed mostly in overalls, jeans, flannel, and construction boots, went about their business in that contented manner only those far removed from the fast-paced and worried centers of the world could. Nothing was a rush and no one was out to get them. This was the third town they'd visited that day in the vicinity of the portal that Callum and the other guardians had come through thirteen years earlier. Agriculture was a large part of the local economy. Street signs steered tourists to the many vineyards that dotted the region—Cat was always telling Cal how wonderful a winery day trip would be. Today was not that day. Today, Cal hoped to find his lost prince.
At stake were the lives of millions of people. The Kingdom of Aandor had been invaded by the maleficent war-happy nation of Farrenheil. Callum MacDonnell had come to this alternate universe to save his infant prince from execution. With the prince came his guardians, a ragtag band of servants and soldiers sworn to protect the boy and raise him to adulthood so that he could one day reclaim his throne. But Farrenheil also sent agents to this world, and now they hunted the prince as well. It was a race to get to the boy first.
Guiding the car, Cal scrutinized each teenaged boy he passed hoping to recognize in their manner some thing that would reveal the prince—his gait, Duke Athelstan's sharp profile, Duchess Sophia's ocean-green eyes. It was a long shot, and perhaps they had used their quota of good luck just surviving the attack in the woods. Cal was exhausted—stretched thin by the mishaps, mistakes, and tragedies of his life that had culminated in the past two days. The most personal of his challenges had yet to emerge from its chrysalis; the secret of his betrothed back in Aandor that he had yet to share with his wife.
I have to tell her was the new mantra that nested in Callum's thoughts. He had never kept secrets from Catherine before. The past few days had introduced several new firsts in their marriage, but no revelation so far constituted the threat to his marriage that his betrothal would. His wife sat in the passenger seat and serenely took in their surroundings, unknowing of the turmoil in Callum's heart. The weather had warmed a bit, and the sun cut deeply into the snow turning the ditches beside the road into babbling brooks. The crisp daylight brought out the gray in Catherine's eyes, and where the light touched her raven tresses it shone blue. She inherited her light skin from the Dutch branch of her family, but Cal always encouraged her to dress as a Native American for Halloween because of her Sioux heritage. You have the cheekbones for war paint, he often teased. In this moment, you would not know from looking at her that their lives had recently been upended. Cal's elusive past finally caught up with him.
Cat was understanding of his mission and willing to do her part, to a point. But that point was poorly defined … a hazy dot on the horizon whose distance neither spouse could gauge. They would only know it when they smacked into it. Cat had accepted that Cal was from a feudal kingdom called Aandor in a far-off alternate reality—that his role in that society was to defend the world order, of which his family resided near the top, and that his mission here was to protect and raise a young prince who would one day rule his kingdom. But the betrothal to another woman—a woman he owed a great debt to and that he realized he still loved as much today as he did thirteen years ago—that was the bomb under their bed.
"This Podunk town makes the other Podunk towns look far less Podunk," Seth moaned from the backseat. The punk had mastered backhanded compliments. Cal was certain the delinquent knew no other kind.
"Concentrate," Lelani scolded. Seth sat in the backseat of the Ford Explorer, and Lelani in the rear cargo area with her upper torso hanging over the seat back. A pile of salt lay in her palm, which she held before Seth. They'd been going over rudimentary sorcery all morning as Cal hopped from town hall to town hall, trying to find records of the events that split his group apart years earlier. It was an important thread to finding the prince.
"How can I concentrate when you keep yelling ‘concentrate'?" Seth responded.
"I am not yelling," she said, though Cal heard the strain behind Lelani's calm response. Seth had a talent for testing the limits of patience.
The backseat bickering chafed the sheath on Callum's last nerve. They seemed to be growing on Cat, though, evident from the smile she tried to hide from her husband. She had always wanted a larger family, and now they inherited two teenagers—a seventeen-year-old centaur that acted thirty-seven, and a twenty-six-year-old porn photographer who behaved sixteen. Cal wasn't sure if Cat's acclimation was a good thing. His negative feelings about Seth had not subsided and were at best mixed. If it weren't for Seth, they would not have lost their memories and spent the better part of the past decade unaware of their real identities. They would never have lost the prince, who had been put in Callum's charge. Tristan might still be alive, as probably Ben Reyes and a score of others. The hardest point to resolve, though, the part that disturbed Callum to his core, was that he would never have married Catherine. He would never have pursued another woman if he were cognizant of his betrothal to Chryslantha. She was as much a part of him as his heart and lungs and he would have stayed true. But then his daughter, Brianna, whom he loved more than life itself, would never have existed. For all his incompetence, bellyaching, and pessimistic rhetoric, Seth was the reason Cal had his family.
Cal once believed his love for Chryslantha was the most powerful force in the world, breakable only by death itself. Noble houses in the kingdom paired their offspring to gain land, status, and power; girls of fourteen betrothed to old men, couples with nothing in common except their parents' desires to grow their holdings. His father was not enamored by the game despite the advantages that paired him with a wife twenty years younger, but Cal's mother, Mina, was a different story. She was a master at the matchmaking art.
Cal had been impressed with Chryslantha since they played as children. At seven, she looked like a princess but climbed trees like a squirrel and spit farther than a wharfie. Her father was wealthy—a duke with only an arm's-length claim to Aandor's seat of power. They had written to each other as children when family business took them to opposite ends of the kingdom. A union with Chryslantha would raise Callum's status and land holdings considerably, but he was already in love with her before the first inkling of a match occurred to their parents. His friends taunted him, jealous that he valued her counsel over theirs … What kind of a man had a woman for a best friend? Chrys had more common sense than any of them; if she'd been a man, she would have been a force to be reckoned with at court, and she would still have been his closest friend.
When Callum was sent to quell the Mourish queen's rebellion at Gagarnoth, Chryslantha could not accept that he might die before she knew his love. The night before he embarked, she gave him her maidenhood, knowing full well the risks that it entailed. Callum had known women before Chryslantha, but it was different for men … they were expected to start young and be worldly in these matters. But had Callum changed his mind about marrying her she would have been scandalized—even if he died on the mission, her reputation would have suffered. Her father's enemies would paint her as soiled and wanton. Because she had brothers to inherit the bulk of her father's titles and lands, only families of lesser repute would have offered their sons for a union and they would leverage her shame to increase her dowry. Many poems had been written about the virtues of chastity—virginity was worth a woman's weight in gold.
Chrys gave Callum the silk garter she had worn while they made love, and knotted a small braid of her golden hair to it. I'll try especially hard not to die, Cal had promised her, clutching the fetish as though it were worth more than all the jewels in the kingdom. For only in death did Cal imagine his life would not be spent with his beloved. He did not anticipate the consequences of a transuniversal expedition, skewed time lines, and incompetent wizards. Some impediments were too powerful for ordinary human love. And yet, he'd found love again. Was his bond with Catherine as fragile? The thought of losing Cat filled Cal with as much dread as confronting Chryslantha with the news of his marriage. He pulled the SUV into the town clerk's parking lot with a mind in turmoil.
"You kids stay here and practice," Cal told his sorcerers. "We'll check this out."
The town hall was an old wooden firetrap, and also served as post office, court, and records office.
"At least it's not made out of pink bricks like that other post office," Cat said.
"We're lucky this place hasn't burned down yet," Cal responded.
The floorboards creaked under Callum's weight, but not so much under his petite wife. There was a hint of mold mingled with old paper and dust in the air—the type of place you expected to find a long-lost manuscript from some long-dead, but brilliant, writer. A tired wooden counter barred admittance to the small office area behind it. A man in a white short-sleeved shirt, square buzz haircut, and about fifty extra pounds sat at the rear desk reading the morning paper. The woman was in her early forties with a bobbed hairstyle. Her name tag read Gloria Hauer.
"Can I help you folks?" she asked.
Callum flashed his NYPD badge. "I was wondering if I could look at your police records from about thirteen years ago?" Callum unfolded a piece of paper from his pocket. It was a printout of a short newspaper blurb that Cat had found online about an accident involving Galen and Linnea Ashe. The newspaper had long ago shuttered its office, a victim of the Internet era. "Is this the jurisdiction that responded to this incident?"
The woman looked at the paper blandly. "Nope. This was in Wassaic. Sorry."
The man at the desk put down his paper and walked up to the front desk. His square puffy face, black horn-rimmed glasses, and pocket protector gave him the appearance of a NASA employee from the early 1960s. His tag said Hank Meier. He looked at the printout. "Well I'll be darned, Glory. Yeah, this was us—there was another feller in here the other day asking about the same incident. Why so much interest in a decade-old pair of roadkills?"
"I can't talk about the case," Callum said. A sinking feeling nestled in his gut. "What other fellow?"
Gloria checked her watch. "You take this, Hank," she said. "I have to get to the bank before they close." She grabbed her coat from the hook and left.
Hank said, "Some private gumshoe from the city. Wore a trench coat like Bogart, if you can believe it. He looked like hell. I guess those types have to work through the flu. Thank God for paid sick days," he said knocking the wooden counter. "But I'll tell you what I told him. The cops that worked that night are either retired in Florida or dead. Only thing we have is the file."
"Can we see your file?" Cat asked.
Hank escorted them back to a desk and left to retrieve the file. He returned, shortly, perplexed.
"I can't find it," he said. "I know I put it back."
Cal bit his inner cheek—a habit he'd given up in his new, calmer life here that had reinstated itself with the return of his memories. Every time they caught a break, something shoved them back a step. He must have put on quite the expression because Hank then said, "Don't have a cow. We're in the process of updating all our records onto the computer. That one wasn't scheduled for scanning yet, but since I had it out anyway, I did it. All the documents are in here," he said tapping the monitor.
Hank opened the file and offered them some coffee and Danishes. Cal scrolled through the documentation. It was all there. On a dark, stormy October night, Galen and Linnea were killed instantly when their car hit a tractor-trailer head on. They were driving south on Route 22. They had stopped at a local diner, where an employee named Mitch Sweeny gave a statement about talking to the couple just before the accident. The authorities could find no history for the man and woman, no point of origin for their journey, and they were officially listed as a pair of Does. There was no mention of a child in the report.
"What's that?" Cat asked, pointing to a photocopy of a coin.
"That's a Phoenix Standard," Cal answered. He stared at the picture with a modicum of awe.
"Cal?" Cat nudged.
"It's our money," he said. "All the kingdoms use the Standard, but mint their own sigils. The sigil of Duke Athelstan's house is the phoenix. It's almost pure gold. This is it," he said emotionally. He almost couldn't believe it. Ever since Lelani's spell deciphered his memories, Cal hadn't felt quite himself; it was like halves of himself lived in different universes, neither one of which was right on its own. The entire mission was a bad dream. Cal expected to wake up in his bed in the Bronx at any moment and realize Aandor didn't exist, there was no prince, and he was only in love with one woman who might be carrying their second child. Either that or he was a patient in a mental ward, wrapped up like a Russian newborn for his own good, and everything he knew about Aandor was an elaborate fantasy of a deluded mind.
But this was it—proof. Aandor existed in the computer records of a town clerk in upstate New York. He turned to Cat and smiled. "We've found the trail."
"Do you have these coins?" Cat shouted back at Hank.
Good question, Cal thought. He scrolled the rest of the file—nothing at all about an infant. Was it possible the prince wasn't with them the night of the accident? Galen and Linnea were the agreed-upon caretakers. Proust's spell had their identities written to be the child's parents, so even if Seth's miscasting of it overpowered them, they should still have come away thinking they were responsible for the baby.
Hank returned holding a plate of Entenmann's Danishes.
"What happened to the items from the crash?" Cat asked the clerk. "Are they in storage?"
"I don't know. I wasn't full-time back then. But I've never seen them around. Probably stolen."
"We should interview anyone that's still in the area," Cal said. "Does this Sweeny still live around here?"
"Yeah. He's up there in age, but still works at the diner. It's about a mile down the road."
The clerk who filed the report was listed on the corner of the original page: G. Manning. Whoever had pilfered the gold coins would not be forthcoming. That might not matter, though. Cal decided to run a hunch—he loaded Google and searched for local coin collectors.
"What are you thinking?" Cat asked.
"I'm thinking you can't buy groceries with twenty-four-karat-gold coins," Cal said. "Not exactly something you can throw into the Coinstar machine at Pathmark. And unless you absolutely have a love for obscure, yet impractical, seemingly ancient coinage, you might want to cash in on such a thing, right?"
"Right," Cat agreed.
"So whose hands would something like that eventually fall into?"
The search hit on a Web site called the Numismatist run by a collector named Nathan Dumont. A link on the site led to a blog he wrote called Exonumianiacs.
"You think he's involved?" asked Cat, not really following the thread. "There might be bigger collectors in the city, or even Hartford."
"I don't know," Cal said. "But these types, they like to share knowledge of their scores—brag and taunt. Otherwise, there's no glory in possessing something rare if no one knows you have it. Whoever took those coins thirteen years ago, it probably ended up in the hands of a guy like this. He may have brokered a deal, know the people who have the coins, or at the very least heard rumors in his circles, all of which can put us one step closer to the trail."
Cat planted a soft, wet kiss on his cheek.
"What's that for?" he said.
"So sexy when you use that brain."
"I am a cop," he pointed out.
She grinned. "Please, don't ruin the moment."
Copyright © 2013 by Edward Lazellari