Henry glanced up quickly. “By God, I never considered that!”
She enjoyed his surprise and the look of admiration in his eyes. She continued, “Maybe it wasn’t the Incas who created this metal. Perhaps it was their Spanish conquerors.”
Henry nodded. “Now that’s something I could more easily believe. The Spanish conquistadors! Maybe when this metallurgist reviews the material, we can at least put this part of the mystery to rest.”
Joan grinned at his enthusiasm. There was nothing more attractive than a man who could share her passion for the mysteries of science—especially one as handsome as Henry.
“First thing when I get back to the Sheraton,” Henry continued, “I’m gonna take a closer look at the cross again.”
Joan tested her steak. It was a perfect medium rare. The chefs here never disappointed. “If you do, I’d like to know what you think as soon as possible.”
“In that case… if you’d like, since you’re dropping me off at the Sheraton, why don’t you come up to the room and see for yourself. After working with the amalgam all day, you’d be the better one to judge it anyway.”
Joan looked up from her steak to see if there was more of an invitation behind his words. She was not one to bed any man who happened to pique her interest, even an old friend… but she wouldn’t mind extending their evening together.
Henry was working at his own steak with studied concentration. He glanced at her from above his glasses, his eyes questioning her hesitation.
Joan made her decision. “Why… yes, I’d love to take another peek at the cross.”
Henry bobbed his head, returning to his steak. “Excellent.”
Joan saw how his smile widened. She found her own grin growing brighter. They might as well be two teenagers out on a first date.
With the matter settled, both turned their attention to the table and the quality of the dinner. The remainder of the conversation consisted of the simple pleasantries of two diners: a review of the meal, shared stories of their different professions, even a discussion on the pending stormfront aiming at the coast from the Great Lakes. By the time dessert was served—a delightfully rich vanilla crême brûlée shared with two spoons—both had grown out of their awkwardness and into a comfortable warmth.
“Whatever happened to us back at Rice?” Joan finally asked, feeling comfortable enough to broach an awkward topic. “Why didn’t we work out?”
Henry fingered his cup of coffee. “I think there was too much life ahead of us. You wanted to pursue medicine. I wanted to get my masters at Texas A&M. I think at the time there was not much room for anything else, especially not a committed relationship.”
“The woes of the career-driven,” she mumbled. Joan’s thoughts drifted to her own husband. It was his common complaint about their marriage. She was never home, never there for him.
Henry sipped his coffee. “Maybe. I suppose. But then eventually I met Elizabeth and you met Robert.” Henry shrugged.
Henry sighed and set his cup down. “Maybe we should be going. It is getting near time for me to contact the team in Peru.”
Joan glanced at her watch. It was almost ten o’clock. Where had the time gone? “And I’ve got an early day tomorrow myself. If we’re to take a peek at that cross tonight, we ought to be going.”
Henry insisted on paying the bill after a mild protest from Joan. “It’s the least I can do after all you’ve done,” he said, pulling out his wallet. “Besides, the tab will be coming out of my research grant anyway.” He offered her a quirked grin.
Joan held up her palms, relinquishing any claims on the check. “If the government is paying, it’s all yours.”
Shortly thereafter, following a short car ride, Joan found herself sharing an elevator with the professor. A degree of nervousness set in again as silence enveloped them. Henry fidgeted with the buttons on his suit. The doors chimed open on the seventh floor, and the two crossed down to Henry’s hotel room.
“Excuse the mess,” he said as he keyed open the door. “I wasn’t expecting company.” Henry held open the door for Joan to step through.
Joan stared at the ruins of the professor’s hotel room. The bed had been overturned and the mattress shredded. Every drawer had been pulled and dumped; even the television lay on its side on the rug, its back panel unscrewed.
“My God!” Henry exclaimed, stunned.
“You said it was a mess, but I wasn’t expecting this,” Joan said in a halfhearted attempt at a joke.
Henry dashed into the room, giving it all a quick glance around. He sifted through some papers by the toppled desk and uncovered his laptop. He picked it up and tested it. A beep as it turned on revealed it had been undamaged. A sigh of relief escaped him. “All my research… thank God.”
Joan cautiously entered the room. “You shouldn’t touch too much. I’ll call hotel security. Whoever burglarized the room might still be around.”
Henry righted the desk and put the computer down. “Why didn’t they take my laptop?”
Dialing the front desk, Joan spoke, “I suspect they were after bigger game. I wager that reporter’s piece in the Baltimore Herald this morning caught the eyes of some petty thieves.”
Henry seemed to jolt with her words. “The cross!” He strode across the room.
“Tell me you left it in the hotel safe,” Joan said.
Shaking his head, Henry moved to one of the sconces on the wall. “After traveling through so many foreign countries, I’ve developed my own system of security.”
As Joan related the burglary to the front desk, Henry used a Swiss army knife to unscrew the fixture from the wall and reached to the niche behind it. He retrieved a small velvet pouch, heavy with whatever was inside. He spilled out the large Dominican cross and silver ring into his palm.
Joan replaced the phone. “Security is on its way. You were lucky this time, Henry. Next time use the hotel’s safe.”
Henry looked around the room. “I think you’re right. These thieves were damned thorough.” Joan stayed silent as Henry examined the disheveled room. “Welcome back to America,” he muttered sourly.
Joan’s eyes strayed to a suit box from Barney’s tossed in a corner. A register receipt was still taped to its cover. She eyed Henry’s handsome suit. So it seemed the professor had done some last-minute shopping for their “date.” She forced down a small smile and silently cursed the thieves that had ruined their evening.
Soon two large men in blue suits appeared at the open door. They flashed identification and entered. “We’ve called the police. They’ll be here in a moment to take a statement. Another room is already being prepared for you.”
Henry turned to Joan. “Why don’t you head home. I can take care of matters here.”
“I suppose I’d better. But tomorrow bring the crucifix with you to the lab. I’ll have Dr. Kirkpatrick look it over. He’ll know for sure if it’s gold or not.”
Henry looked about the room with a forlorn expression. “Thanks, I’ll do that.”
She moved to leave, but he stopped her with a touch on her arm. She turned to find him smiling at her. “As weird as this may sound considering the state of my room, I had a nice night.”
She squeezed his hand and held it a fraction longer than professionally necessary. “I did, too.” She returned his smile, if only a bit more shyly. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”
He nodded, and as she stepped from the room, he added softly, “I look forward to it.”
Joan didn’t turn, pretending not to have heard, when actually she feared her reddening face would reveal too plainly her heart. Only when she was safely in the elevator and the doors had closed did she let out a long sigh of relief. “Get ahold of yourself,” she warned the empty elevator. “He’s an old friend. That’s all.”
Still as the elevator headed down, a small shiver of pleasure passed through her. Tomorrow could not come soon enough.
As another tumble of rocks echoed down from above, Sam glanced up from where he knelt. His eyes flicked to the others gathered around the three bands of hematite. Norman stared up toward the roof with a small flinch of his shoulders. Ralph only grumbled and continued swathing the yellow dye across his band with a small paintbrush. Denal sat to one side, running his hands slowly up and down the crowbar in his lap.
Only Maggie met his eyes. “The second level must be collapsed by now,” she whispered.
Sam nodded with a deep sigh. None of them wanted to consider what that meant. He glanced to his watch. It was a little after ten in the evening. At this rate, there was little chance the pyramid would remain intact for another two days. To distract from the weight of rock slowly crumbling down upon them, they had attempted to keep busy. Sam’s suggestion that they test his experimental dyes on the hematite bands had been grudgingly accepted.
“Now what?” Ralph asked. He stretched a kink from his back where he bent over his band.
Sam scooted closer. “Next you need to sponge the excess dye gently away with this lipophilic agent.” He passed Ralph a dry sponge and a jar of clear solution.
“I’m ready, too,” Maggie said, and reached for a second sponge.
With Sam directing, the other two students soon had the bands prepped for deciphering. Sam lifted the black Wood’s lamp and switched it on. “Okay, extinguish the flashlight.”
Once done, darkness suddenly collapsed tighter around them. A pool of purplish light was all that stood between them and absolute blackness. Bathed within the glow, the two bands fluoresced a soft green. The group clustered tighter.
“Amazing,” Maggie exclaimed.
Under Sam’s ultraviolet lamp, the ancient writing stood in stark relief, the green lettering glowing brightly, as crisp as the day it had been etched into the metal.
“Cool,” Ralph said, patting Sam on the shoulder.