Joan pulled up a stool. “From the amount, I judge it must have filled the skull’s entire cranium.”
Henry picked the beaker up. Joan noticed that he quickly grabbed it with his other hand. The stuff was heavier than it appeared. He tilted the jar, but the unknown substance refused to flow. Replacing the beaker on the table, he commented, “It looks solid.”
Joan shook her head. “It’s not.” She grabbed a glass rod and thrust it into the material. It sank but not without some effort, like pushing through soft clay. Joan released the rod, and it remained standing straight in the jar. “Malleable, but not solid.”
Henry tried to move the glass rod. “Hmm… definitely not gold. But the hue and brilliance are a perfect match. Maybe you were right before, a new amalgam or something. I’ve certainly never seen anything like it.”
Joan glanced at him, eyebrows raised. “Or maybe you have. Let’s compare it to the gold cross. You brought it with you, yes?”
He nodded. Twisting back to the table, Henry dialed the lock on his briefcase and snapped it open. “I figure it’s safer with me than at the hotel.” He removed the ornate Dominican cross and held it toward her.
The workmanship was incredible. The Christ figure lay stretched and stylized upon a scrolled cross; the pain of his agony sculpted in the strain of his limbs, yet his face was full of passionate grace. “Impressive,” she said.
“And solid… so I doubt it’s made of the same amalgam.” Henry placed the crucifix beside the beaker. The strange material and the cross glinted and shone equally.
“Are you sure?”
Henry met her eyes over the rim of his spectacles. He shrugged his brows. “I’ll leave the final assessment to your expert.”
She reached for the crucifix. “May I?”
“Of course, Joan.”
Her hand hesitated for a heartbeat when Henry used her name. The intimacy and surroundings brought back sudden memories of when the two were lab partners during a semester in undergraduate biology. How strange and vivid that recollection was at the moment. More than just déjà vu.
Without meeting his eye, Joan took the cross from the table. The past was the past. She hefted the crucifix in her palm. It, too, weighed more than it appeared—but didn’t gold always seem that way? She held the crucifix up to the light, tilting it one way, then the other, studying it.
Henry theorized aloud while she examined the relic. “It’s definitely the work of a Spanish craftsman. Not Incan work. If the cross is confirmed to be composed of the same amalgam, then we’ll know for sure the Spanish brought the substance to the New World, rather than the other way around…”
He continued talking, but something had caught Joan’s attention. Her fingers felt small scratches on the crucifix’s back surface. She reached to a pocket and slipped out her reading glasses. Putting them on, she turned the crucifix over and squinted. It was not the artist’s signature or some piece of archaic scripture. Instead it seemed to be row after row of fine marks. They covered the entire surface of the crucifix’s back side.
“What is this?” Joan asked, interrupting Henry.
He moved closer, shoulder to shoulder with her. Joan noticed the faint scent of him, a mix of aftershave and a richer muskiness. She tried to ignore it.
“What are you talking about?” he asked.
“Here.” With a fingernail, she pointed to the marks.
“Ah, I noticed those. I think they’re a result of the cross rubbing against the friar’s robe, slowly abrading the soft gold over the years.”
“Mmm, maybe… but they seem too symmetrical, and some of the marks are quite deep and irregular.” She turned slightly to Henry, almost nose to nose. His breath was on her cheek, his eyes staring deep into hers.
“What are you suggesting?”
She shook her head, stepping away. “I don’t know. I’d like to get a closer look.”
Joan led him around the corner of the table where sets of microscopes were positioned. She moved to a bulky binocular unit with a large glass tray under it. “A dissection microscope. Normally I use it to study gross tissues more closely.”
She placed the cross facedown on the tray and switched on the light source. Illuminated from above, the gold glowed with an inner fire. Joan adjusted the light so it shone obliquely across the crucifix. Bending over the eyepiece, she made fine adjustments in the lenses. Under the low magnification, the surface of the cross filled the view. The marks on the crucifix were in stark relief, appearing as deep gouges in the metal, long valleys, clearly precise and uniform. The scratches composed a series of repeated tiny symbols: rough squares, crude circles, horizontal and vertical squiggles, hash marks, nested ovals.
“Take a look,” Joan said, moving aside.
Henry bent over the scope. He stared a few moments in silence, then a low whistle escaped his lips. “You’re right. These are not random scratches.” His gaze flicked toward her. “I think there’s even silver embedded in some of the grooves. Perhaps traces of the tool used to scratch these marks.”
“For such painstaking work, there must be some reason to go through all that effort.”
“But why?” Henry’s lips tightened as he pondered this new mystery, his eyes slightly narrowed. Finally, he expelled a breath. “It may be a message. But who knows for sure? Maybe it’s just an ordinary prayer. Some benediction.”
“But in code? And why on the back of the cross? It must mean something more.”
Henry shrugged. “If the friar notched it as a message while imprisoned, it may have been the only way he could keep it secure. The Incas revered gold items. If the cross was with him when he died on the altar, the Incas would have kept the crucifix with the body.”
“If you’re right, who was his message meant for?”
Henry shook his head slowly, his gaze thoughtful. “The answer may lie in this code.”
Joan moved back to the scope. She slid a legal pad and a pen from a drawer, then sat down and positioned herself to copy the marks on her paper. “Let’s check it out. I’ve always liked dabbling with cryptograms. If I don’t have any luck, I can also run it by someone in the computer department, pass it through a decryption program. They may be able to crack it.”
Henry stood behind her as she recorded the writing. “You’ve grown into a woman of many talents, Dr. Joan Engel.”
Joan hid her blush as she concentrated on her task, copying the marks carefully. She worked quickly and efficiently, not needing to look up as she jotted what she saw. After years of making notes while studying a patient’s sample under a microscope, she had grown skilled at writing blind.
In five minutes, a copy lay on the table beside her. Row after row of symbols lined the yellow paper. She straightened from her crouch, stretching a kink from her neck.
“Hold still,” Henry said behind her. He slid a hand along her shoulder and gently lifted the cascade of hair from the back of her neck. His knuckles brushed her skin.
She suppressed a shiver. “Henry…?”
“Don’t move.” His fingers reached to knead the muscles of her strained upper shoulders. At first, his skin was cool against her own, but as he worked, heat built under his strong fingers, warming her sore muscles.
“I see you’ve not lost your touch.” She leaned into his fingers, remembering another time, another place. “So if I tell you to stop, ignore me,” she said, feigning a nonchalance that the huskiness of her voice betrayed.
“It’s the least I can do after all your help.” His own words were heavier than usual.
A sharp rap on the laboratory door interrupted the moment.
Henry’s hands froze, then pulled back.
Joan shifted from her chair, her shoulders and neck still warm from his touch. She glanced at her watch. “It must be Dr. Kirkpatrick. He’s right on time.”
Henry cursed the metallurgist’s impeccable timing. He rubbed his palms together, trying to wipe away the memory of Joan’s skin. Get ahold of yourself, man. You’re acting like a smitten teenager.
He watched Joan walk away. One of her hands reached to touch her neck gently. Then she brushed her hair back into place, a midnight flow against her white smock. Mysteries or not, right now all he wished for was a few more moments alone with her.
Joan crossed to the door, opened it, and greeted the visitor. “Dale, thanks for coming over.”
Dale Kirkpatrick, the metallurgy expert from GeorgeWashingtonUniversity, stood a good head taller than Henry, but he was waspishly thin with an elongated face that seldom smiled. He tried to do so now with disastrous results, like a coroner greeting the bereaved. “Anything for a colleague.”
Henry sensed the red-haired man had shared more with Joan than just a professional relationship. The pair’s eyes met one another awkwardly, and the welcoming handshake was a touch longer than custom dictated. Henry instantly disliked him. The man wore an expensive silk suit and shoes polished to a glowing sheen. His heels tapped loudly as he was invited into the room. In his left hand, he carried a large equipment case.
Henry cleared his throat.
Joan swung around. “Dale, let me introduce you to Professor Henry Conklin.”
Kirkpatrick held out his hand. “The archaeologist.” It was a statement not a question, but Henry scented a trace of dismissal in his voice.
They shook hands, briefly and curtly.
“I appreciate your help in this matter,” Henry said. “It’s posed quite a mystery. We can’t make heads or tails of this amalgam or whatever it is.”
“Yes… well, let me just take a look.” The man’s attitude was again polite, but a touch haughty, as if his mere presence would bring light to darkness.
“It’s over here,” Joan said, guiding him to the worktable.
Once presented with the enigma, Kirkpatrick cocked his head, studying the strange substance in silence. Joan began to speak, but the specialist held up a finger, quieting her. Henry had an irrational urge to break that finger. “It’s not gold,” he finally declared.