The Secret Passageway

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Chapter 14

After releasing a huge sigh of relief at Barb’s response, despite her sarcasm and jokes, Josh set off to meet his former lover at a small café that he knew of just the next town over where there was always a big crowd, lots of lights, and enough conversation and noise to cover what he needed to tell her. She had, Josh realized changed little from those days when they had been a couple and a part of him deep inside wished they had somehow been able to work out their differences. Now, even as back then, Barb’s coping mechanism had been humor and mild cynicism.

As Josh drove across town to meet her, he hoped even with all of Barb’s irreverence and not taking anything in the world too seriously that he was not putting her at risk as well. Barb flagged Josh down as she waited for him in a dimly lit patio of the café, The Blue Tarragon, and Josh felt his heart flutter a bit as she smiled widely at him as he approached. He knew this was partly that he had not seen her for almost a year and a half and that now, even as they were no longer an item, Josh never ceased to be struck by her simple beauty and the grace and elegance with which she carried herself. But also, he was wondering if pulling her into his life again at this point, with all that he might be facing, had been such a good idea.

Barb hugged him warmly and Josh had forgotten just how good it felt to hold her again. There was a subtle scent of some herbal fragrance coming from Barb as Josh pulled away to look her in the face and it filled his senses just as it had many years ago. Josh knew people said this all the time to flatter one another, but as he looked on Barb it truly was as if she had not changed a day since they had gone their separate ways.

Barb pulled him closer again…

“So…tell me, Mr. Bond” she whispered in his ear,…you are sure you were not followed?”

Josh held her at arms’ length as she guffawed and snickered like only Barb Delmont could.

“You never stop, do you….”

“Only on my deathbed, my friend…”

Josh knew she was joking, but all the same that comment gave him a sickly shiver up his spine.

“Let’s grab s table…” Josh replied.

“Sounds good…I figure dinner’s on you, what with all the cloak and dagger stuff…”

They sat about three quarters of the way back in the tasteful, yet simplistic café as Josh looked around checking out everyone there.

“You expecting a date, Josh?”

“Very funny…want a drink?”

“You bet! Waiter! Your best Dom Perignon! Chop chop!” Barb decried as she snapped her fingers playfully in the air.

Josh put his hand over his face, remembering just how little Barb ever seemed to care about what those around her thought of her outlandish antics at times.

“Yes, Madam?” the waiter said as he approached. “We have a fine selection of…”

Barb cut him off before the whole thing got out of hand.

“I’m sorry…I’m sorry…I was just having some fun with my date, Michael.” Barb said, laughing as she read the man’s name tag.

“Yeah…” Josh said as he looked up at the waiter, “she’s a pip. How about a nice Sangiovese? Maybe from Oak Creek?”

“Very good, sir,” Michael replied giving Josh a look of empathy and almost brotherly sympathy as he trotted off to fetch the wine.

“Oh, my, my…” Barb teased in an affected Italian accent, “a nice Sangiovese…from Oak Creek…when did you get to be such a wine snob?”

Josh joined her in a laugh.

The wine came and despite her poking fun at him, Barb had to admit the wine was excellent, with this vintage showing off the rare, but unforgettable touches of fresh fruit and spiciness of the lesser-known Italian grape. She toasted Josh as she drank and when he felt it was time, Josh set his glass down to fill Barb in on the background of why he had imposed on her in the first place. The place was filled with happy people in pleasant, but not overly loud conversation, providing just the perfect amount of cover for Josh to talk to her.

The longer Josh talked, the more and more the look of lightness and playfulness fell from Barb’s normally perpetually carefree expression. It was not a look of anxiety, exactly, but even to someone who did not know her well, it would have been obvious the import and gravity of Josh’s story was having an impact. He began in the beginning with the discovery of the earthen hewn tunnel in his house and the crate with maps to the alleged Crespi collection as well as the connection to William and Helen Masterson. Then hitting just the highlights, Josh progressed through how he and Dr. Harper had become apparent targets of a long-standing organization known internationally for thefts of valuable antiquities around the globe.

Being careful to not betray the confidence that Dr. Harper had placed in him, Josh carefully skirted around his former professor’s association with the as-of-yet unnamed government intelligence agency to which he had once been a member of. He only said that he had contacted Harper to find out what exactly it was he had found in the old crate in his cellar and how they might possibly get the papers, maps, and other documents back to the proper authorities. By the time Josh had finished his tale, they had plowed through their entrees, a second bottle of wine, and were dawdling over some tiramisu as the café was slowing down for the evening, but still about half full.

“Well, Josh…” Barb said as she picked up her wine glass and swirled the contents, “if this is all true…and I have no reason to believe otherwise…then, yeah, it does seem as if you have stepped in it. Even from naïve and innocent intentions.”

Josh just grinned weakly.

“And this is why you do not feel so comfortable going back to your place tonight while you wait on Dr. Harper’s call? Think these…goons…was that the phrase you used? Might be on the lookout for you?”

“I know it sounds over the top, Barb…but we have had a couple close calls with these guys already. And they have shown clearly that they have no compunction about doing whatever is necessary to get to the Crespi papers.”

“You referring to the security guard at Tillman?”

Josh just nodded as he sipped his wine, grimacing slightly at the recall of what had happened the night Dr. Harper’s office had been searched.

“Can I ask one question, pal?” she asked as she looked straight into his eyes.

“For indulging me this far, Barb, ask away…”

“How is it that a mild-mannered antiquities history professor is going to go up against this…how should I say…gang of thugs…without getting neutralized himself?”

This was the one question that Josh had been hoping she would not ask. But now it was out. And he could not just ignore it or try and soft-peddle it, based on his knowledge of Barb and her somewhat magical sense of intuition. However, he was still adamant on adhering to his promise to Dr. Harper, so he plowed ahead, hoping for the first time since he had known Barb that he could spin an explanation that was a twisting of the truth…not quite an actual lie, but enough, he prayed to satisfy her curiosity while simultaneously keeping his vow of secrecy to Harper.

“Ben Harper has a lot of contacts around the globe, Barb. You know as well as I do as to his reputation among the antiquities and ancient history crowd. These guys, the ones that seem to be keeping a close eye on us right now, are based out of somewhere in Europe. Maybe Eastern Europe, but somewhere in Europe for sure. Dr. Harper is trying to get in touch with and see what help he can round up over there now to throw a net over these guys here. My guess is if they—Dr. Harper made it sound like the they might even involve INTERPOL or a like-minded agency—could then ‘persuade’ the local men here on the ground to give up enough information so they could go after the head of the snake, so to speak.”

“He really has those kinds of contacts?”

Josh shrugged.

“He led to me to believe so. I knew he was an international lecturer and all that, but I guess maybe it goes beyond that. After all the years in his field, I guess you make friends in some unexpected places as well, especially when it comes to having your expertise so well-known.”

“So how do you fit into all of this, Josh?”

“I’ve still got the documents that apparently may lead to the secret location of the Crespi Collection, which many thought had been plundered or destroyed long ago. According to what I found and Dr. Harper’s interpretation of the ancient script on the papers, that may not be so. You know the legend of the Crespi Collection?”

“Bits and pieces only.”

Josh nodded and then filled her in on the details as he knew them.

“And your role?”

Josh was not quite sure of this, having only had Dr. Harper hint around at him being a real decoy. But he supposed it would not hurt to pass along his interpretation of Harper’s vague description to her.

“I won’t know for sure until Dr. Harper calls me tonight—or maybe not until tomorrow morning based on the time differences between here and Europe—but I am assuming he wants me to appear as if I have the real documents to draw out my stalkers.”

“You willing to do that?”

“Barb…William and Helen Masterton most likely died at the hands of this group protecting the Crespi papers. This is an invaluable collection, the likes of which have not been seen for eons. If this group in Europe got their hands on whatever may remain of the collection, as they have many other items over time, according to Dr, Harper, I would never forgive myself. Sure, I could just walk away. But Dr. Harper thinks I can make this go much smoother since the men on the ground here seem to have identified me as having the documents they were apparently sent to retrieve. It would be a disservice to the Mastersons as well as any other guardians along the way that have protected the secret so far.”

Barb just nodded as she finished up her wine and set the empty glass carefully back on the starched table linen. Josh looked over at her and met her eyes. Somewhere in there, he was sure he saw a lingering sense of doubt in his last narrative, but if so, she was not going to push the issue. Josh felt like he had danced around the truth closely enough to satisfy Barb’s curiosity, but could still face Dr. Harper. Once this was over, and Harper knew the key role that Barb had provided this night to allow Josh to remain safe and untouched, perhaps he would also take her into his confidence. That was yet to be seen. As well as whether or not any of them actually survived whatever this “plan” of Harper’s was…

“I must say I am impressed, Josh. Not sure I could take this on my shoulders, despite the righteous cause. Nothing back yet from Dr. Harper I am guessing?”

Josh checked his phone just to make sure he had not missed anything during their dinner, but no…there was nothing. No missed calls. No voicemails. No texts.

“Not yet. I am guessing the time difference may be an issue.”

Barb nodded as Josh waved over Michael and handed him his credit card for the dinner. They sat quietly as he waited on the receipt and when it finally came, both Barb and Josh were surprised to see that they were one of only three parties still remaining in the café. Josh signed off the tab and followed Barb as they both walked slowly through the maze of tables toward the front door. Josh walked Barb to her car which was just a half block down the road from the café and waited as she retrieved her keys.

“Thanks for dinner, Josh. And for what I must say was a much more interesting evening than I have had in a very long time.”

“My pleasure. Thanks for not laughing me off the phone when I called to ask. I know it must have sounded quite…um…creative…at the time.”

“I will say initially that I was skeptical, but after hearing the whole story tonight, I am utterly convinced of the veracity of it all.”

Josh held her door as she began to get in but then hesitated and turned toward him.

“So…where will you go now, Josh? Guessing you can’t…or at least would prefer not to…go home. Likewise, I suppose Dr. Harper’s is out of the question as well for similar reasons?”

“Wow…I had not even thought of that. I was sure I would hear back from him tonight and that he would have a suggestion for me as we set out on this plan of his. I guess I can grab a hotel room somewhere…”

“I’m just a few miles over, between here and back in town. You interested in staying with me tonight?”

“Are you serious?”

“As a heart attack, Josh. As far as your ‘stalkers’ are concerned I am an unknown quantity. You can leave your car here, so if they come looking here—as unlikely as that is—they would probably camp out and wait on you. You can stay with me, safe and sound…and wait on Harper’s call to arms.”

Josh considered this offer, but was still feeling a bit on edge about getting Barb even remotely involved.

“I don’t know, Barb…I’m just…”

“My sexual orientation a problem?” she asked with a smirk he knew well.

“Oh…no…no…no, Barb, it’s not that at all!”

“I’m just tugging on your lariat, Josh. I get it. You’re concerned they might connect me with you and then…”

“Yeah…actually…yeah…”

“I’m not worried…”

With that, Barb pulled Josh close and kissed him hard and deep on the mouth. He was caught off-guard, but as he felt the warmth and wetness of her mouth against his, he relaxed and returned the kiss in kind. It was a touch and sensation he knew well from all those nights so long ago with her and before he knew it he was in the passenger seat of her BMW and they were heading back to Barb’s condo just around the corner…

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