The Secret Passageway

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Chapter 12

“OK, Doc…who exactly are you and what is this ‘plan’ of yours, anyway.” Josh asked.

Ben Harper smiled grimly as he set aside his empty tea cup and interlaced his fingers as he gazed blankly out the windows to their right. It had been years since Harper had left his old life behind, and not once…not since he had confided in his wife, MaryAnn, before she had died prematurely of ovarian cancer…had the professor at Tillman University told anyone about his life before the façade of academics that he had crafted for himself. When Josh Redmond had first come to him with this discovery of his he had known it was inevitable that the truth would come out. There had never been anyone since he had confided in MaryAnn that Harper felt comfortable enough around to unburden himself to.

And it was not like he and Josh were great friends. The kid had been an average student…nothing special. But he had always been impressed when students at Tillman stepped out of their comfort zones and studied something new and challenging. He knew Josh’s proclivity to art and while he did not light up any new inroads in history while in Harper’s classes, he had stuck to the material and seemed genuinely drawn and attracted to it. He had not been just another kid trying to fulfill a requirement of the liberal arts school that insisted each student get a taste of everything the university had to offer scholastically.

“What I am about to tell you, Josh, stays between just you and me. OK?”

Josh had not been expecting that response and he wondered if he had maybe opened himself up to something he was about to regret. Perhaps, he supposed, but it would appear as if it was too late to put the genie back in the bottle now.

“I guess, Doc…sure…”

“I mean it, Josh. Unless I get your solemn promise on this, this conversation is over.”

The easy-going mask of Dr. Harper that had been so pervasive to Josh was gone. There was not a trace of it in his face or his speech at the moment. Josh felt his mouth go dry and his stomach flip over with anxiety as Harper’s steely gaze bore into him.

“OK, Doc. Absolutely. You have my word. Mind if I steal a cup of your tea?”

Harper nodded but did not smile or indicate any glimpse of ease return to his demeanor as he sat back and told Josh the story of his life prior to his position at the university.

Benjamin Harper had been an exceptional student in his day. He had come to college, but it was not the university at which he currently taught. When he had begun his undergraduate program, Harper had not really had a definitive idea of what he wanted to pursue. He took a smattering of courses from all the departments during his freshman and sophomore years, but it was not until the end of that 2nd year that he found his calling. Though he had excelled in virtually everything he had taken on, it was not until Benjamin attended a few of Dr. Horace Willoughby’s ancient history courses that he got focused on what it was he was to pursue with true vigor. He could never really explain it to anyone, or even for himself at the time, but Harper was inexplicably mesmerized and almost fanatically entranced by the idea of ancient civilizations and what secrets they still held in the present.

Upon finishing his undergraduate degree with a B.A. in history and ancient studies, Ben Harper had found his thirst for the subject matter barely quenched. With Dr. Willoughby’s recommendation to top off his stellar academic record, Harper enrolled at Rutgers in a graduate program that would dovetail nicely with his just completed studies. Upon arrival, Harper blew through the initial offerings and soon entered the doctoral program. At the time, there were situations and circumstances within the underbelly of the US government that the average citizen was completely unaware of. The government had many covert and quite illicit and illegal programs running around the globe under the guise of national security and stemming the tide of communism.

Ben stopped for just a second to gather his thoughts as to how to continue this revelation to Josh, but also to let his words sink in a bit more. He paused as he looked to him with an eye of regret as he raised his eyebrows in a manner to say “sound familiar in today’s political climate?” Josh, in his own time and style grinned slyly and nodded back.

“I take it you are saying not much has changed in the back halls and dark hallways of our beloved country and those who pull the strings?” he asked as he refilled his empty tea cup.

“Big shock, huh?” Harper replied as he sat back and sighed. “I guess times change, but in a lot of cases, especially where world governments are involved, a lot remains the same.”

Harper did not want to get into a whole thing with Josh at the moment regarding what he considered highly immoral and probably illegal activities by the newly elected administration, but he could tell by Josh’s reaction he did not have to. They were both on the same page in that regard. He knew Josh’s beliefs well from his days as Harper’s undergraduate student.

Anyway, Harper went on, there were individuals within the government that began to bandy about the idea that students being educated in the historical details and deep background of antiquated civilizations might be of use to their cause. Just as I had finished up my PhD dissertation and was considering my options for what was next in my future, I got this call. It was mysterious and furtive initially, but let’s just say I was of a different mind when I was younger and certain “incentives” were applied to convince me to listen.

“Doc…are you saying….?”

Harper put up his hand and cut off Josh from finishing his question.

“Hang on, Josh. All I will say for now is that it was a different time and I was a different person. I’m not especially proud of the decisions I made back then, but it was what it was. I take responsibility for what I did and the path I chose. That is not the point of this story. I just want to give you some background that will help lay out the plan I want to propose to you to perhaps resolve our current…let’s say predicament…”

Josh nodded and indicated that he should go on.

I met with a small group of men following that introductory phone call. At the time, they never really gave me any actual indication from what area of the government they came from, but after talking to them it was not hard to figure that out. They made a compelling case to me that night of what we as a country were facing as we were hip-deep in the Cold War. Even now, I am not sure if they were CIA or NSA or some other clandestine organization that perhaps would not even be acknowledged publicly, but for sure it was in this realm. And despite the turf wars that existed among governmental agencies then, as they do today, their specific alignment did not seem concerning at the time.

They were offering me the opportunity to work with other highly educated individuals, like myself, to serve my country. They would erase all my student loans, which even in my day were extensive relative to the times. The work sounded intriguing and interesting, and actually, much more of a challenge and a goal worthy of pursuing than how I was likely to end up following the awarding of my doctoral degree: stuck in some dusty old back room teaching. I know…I know…that is pretty much where I am now, but remember I was young and ambitious and they spoke to my ego.

Josh sat silent as he thought over his own circuitous route from trying his hand at his own art to the corporate world and now back. As a young man, he was well acquainted with how outside influences could have a strong pull on the male ego.

So off I went to sign up for what I assumed was the adventure of a lifetime. To some degree it was. However, to prepare me for any scenario or possibility, part of this deal was that I had to go through the same training as any other recruited…oh, hell…why sugar-coat it…spy. Again, I was young and impressionable and naïve. Not making excuses, mind you, just setting the stage.

Josh nearly tipped over his half-filled cup as his jaw dropped open as he tried to resolve the image of the mild-mannered and calm college professor he knew with one of a government spy. Harper recognized what was going on in his former student’s mind and smiled slyly.

“It’s true, Josh. I was not always the old, doddering, milquetoast-appearing college professor you know.”

“Come on, Doc…..I would never use those words to describe you!”

“I know….I know….just having some fun with you is all….”

And believe it or not, in those days, Josh, I was capable of…though fortunately I never had to find out for real…all the mayhem and subterfuge that agents of a government intelligence group might have to perform. As time went on, all I ever really had to do was what they had primarily recruited me for: digging into history and ancient records and artifacts to dig out anything that might be of use in the covert war against our supposed enemies of that day.

“Um… Doc?” Josh interrupted. “Did you…you know…”

Harper chuckled to himself.

“Josh…it was nothing as glamorous or exciting as the movies, if that is what you are getting at. And even though my opinions and views of the government are vastly different today than when I was a bit younger than you are now, I will have to respectively pass on relating any specific details, OK?”

Josh nodded, though deep down he had to admit that he was a bit disappointed.

“I did sign a lot of agreements to keep all my activities and intellectual property of those days under lock and key. Even with a drastic change in my philosophy and trust of our government, I do take all those promises seriously…even now. Let’s just say I had my moments in contributing to the cause.”

“This is incredible, Doc. And you say no one else knows?”

“Just me.”

“Not even your wife?”

Josh felt a touch of regret having brought this up. He knew how devoted Harper had been to his late wife and was even to this day still mourning her passing.

“Oh, shit, Doc…I’m sorry. Ignore that.”

“It’s OK, Josh. But I appreciate your compassion and consideration. Mary Ann just knew me in my professorial days. She had no idea of my past life before that and I figured it was best to just keep a lid on all of that. I was not exactly lying to her, though I guess many consider the sin of omission to be pretty much the same thing. It just did not seem to be necessary. I was only when she got ill that my guilt over keeping my former life from her got to me. So to answer your question…yeah. She knew.”

Josh did not know what to say.

“And you are wondering why now? And why you?”

“Guess so, Doc…” Josh offered tentatively.

“To tell you the truth, Josh. I am not real sure other than I thought it was necessary so you would understand what I want to propose to continue the protection of the pieces of the Crispi collection that the Mastersons may have died guarding. My oath to the agency was never to reveal details of the programs of those days. And I feel like I have honored that vow. As far as you know now, all I did was work for the government…even if it might have been in a somewhat covert capacity. I gave you no names, no places, no project identities, no set goals, etc.…correct?”

“Sure, Doc.”

“Maybe I said a bit more than my handlers of the day would have liked, but as far as I am concerned, I have not violated any agreements.”

“If it’s cool with you, Doc, I am fine.”

“Good. So now you know my hidden and some would say, sordid, past. And now that you have an idea of what I did and what training I went through to be in that function, I think you are ready to hear my plan to resolve this whole mess you and I have reluctantly found ourselves in.”

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