The Secret Passageway

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Chapter 4

Josh parked in a visitor’s space near the history building, retrieved his valise and locked his car. It had been a long time since he had stepped foot on campus, but other than some new buildings and maybe a cleaner look to the grounds, the campus looked frighteningly similar to what he recalled from his own days as a student. Then he passed a few students. He looked with disbelief, wondering if the new students were getting younger or if it was him that was just getting older. Smiling as he looked down, Josh knew it was the latter, though he was not thrilled with the realization.

Harper was waiting for Josh when he knocked on his office door and he offered him a drink as they both sat down to catch up. His old professor’s office looked shockingly similar from what he remembered from his days as an undergraduate. Books and papers were stacked about in a random fashion, but from what Josh recalled of the man’s keen intellect, he was sure it was ordered chaos and that it would be a simple matter for him to locate anything at a moment’s notice.

“So, Josh…” Harper said once they had all the pleasantries out of the way, “you said something about some peculiar symbols?”

“I did.”

Josh opened his valise on the vacant chair next to him and removed the thick roll of plastic bags. He peeled off each outer layer until he reached the original protective piece and he handed the professor the mailing envelope and sat back to let the man look over the sheet of paper. The office went silent as the professor’s face went slack and he set it flat on his desktop to carefully peruse the writing and symbols. Josh sat back and sipped at his drink waiting for Dr. Harper to say something. It was obvious he was re-reading the sheet several times. In addition, the carefree expression had left his face and Josh had a feeling his initial concerns over his find were not to be taken lightly.

Harper sat back in his chair as well, the squeaky springs groaning conspicuously in the dead air of the office. He sipped at his own drink and then tented his fingers as he looked across his desk, over and around the piles of papers and books at Josh. Other than the regular tick of a wall clock, there was not a sound. The sun streamed in through the large window just to Josh’s left and the muted laughter and shouts of students on the quad below could be heard. But otherwise it remained silent. Josh suddenly felt uncomfortable based on how the professor was looking at him, but he just smiled weakly waiting for the man to speak first.

“Just came across these, huh?” Harper asked with a hint of sarcasm in his voice.

“Yeah…I…uh…just bought this new house and I was poking around and…”

Josh stopped in mid-sentence, frozen by the look on Harper’s face.

“Want to give me what else you found, Josh? Then maybe give me the rest of the story?”

Josh felt his face redden and his ears tingle with heat. Whatever had been on that paper, it must have been obvious, at least to Dr. Harper, that there was more. In the words of an old 1930’s gangster film, Josh thought, the gig was up. He pulled out the manila envelope and handed it over, watching in fascination as the professor slipped on a pair of thin latex gloves before gingerly removing the quad-folded map and opening each section to display the thin chart on his desk as well.

“How did you….” Josh began, only to be silenced as Harper held up a finger and looked with great concentration at the map.

After a few minutes, Harper sat back, whipped off the gloves, deposited them in the trash and gestured to Josh to spill the story. Knowing there was no point in any type of subterfuge now, Josh told his tale, step by step. Harper listened in silence, letting Josh tell each step of his discovery, only nodding as he went along and then looking again at the paper from the mailing envelope once Josh had finished.

“What does it all mean, Doc?” Josh asked.

“You able to understand any of it?”

“Nope. Zip. No offense, Doc, but it’s been a long time since I took any of your classes, and quite frankly this does not look even closely resemble anything you ever presented.”

“No…I am not surprised you did not. There are maybe half a dozen people around that would recognize this, Josh. It’s about as archaic and cryptic and nearly forgotten as a language can get, historically speaking.”

“And I am guessing you are one of them?”

“Yeah…I am certainly no Robert Langdon, but, yeah…I recognize it.”

Josh smiled more broadly, appreciating the professor’s sense of humor as he referenced the running character from the Dan Brown books.

“Want to fill me in, Doc?”

Harper nodded and stood. He paced his office as he gathered his thoughts, and immediately Josh recognized the professor’s natural mannerisms, taking him back to his student days, when Ben Harper was his lecturer.

“Josh…ever hear the story of Father Carlos Crespi Croci and the missing golden artifacts of South America?”

Josh shook his head.

“Not surprising. It is one of the most enigmatic, if not well-known stories ever told in my field. Much like the material that the prolific author Dan Brown has made a very good living off of, it involves an unknown, or at least to date, unidentified civilization, incredible artifacts, and massive amounts of gold. The tale depicts fantastic figures thought to connect America to Sumeria, with symbols representing an unknown language.”

“Sumeria?” Josh asked.

“Yeah…it was the earliest known civilization of southern Mesopotamia. What today we know as the southern regions of Iraq. Rudimentary writing dates to circa 3000 BC. About same time as civilization is credited in ancient Egypt and the Indus Valley.”

Josh felt his pulse quicken as he looked over and saw the script and the map again. He was not intimately familiar with the geography that Harper was referencing, but he got the basic idea as a map of the Middle East formed in his mind. What was making Josh’s pulse pick up, though, was not the history lesson. Rather, it was his wondering if Harper was about to suggest what he was thinking now…that what he had found was linked to this Father Crespi.

“Perhaps some background might be in order, if you don’t mind?”

Harper nodded as he felt his throat go dry.

“Father Crespi was a man of many talents…educator, botanist, anthropologist, musician…but above all he was seen as a humanitarian. He was a Salesian monk who dedicated himself to his faith and the people of Cuenca in Ecuador.”

“Salesian?”

“Uh-huh…don’t try and get me to expand in this one too much. Catholic history is not in my milieu. It is a special sect and about all I know is that the Salesian Order was founded in the late 19th century by an Italian priest, Saint John Bosco, to aid poor children during the Industrial Revolution.”

Josh nodded, finding Dr. Harper’s encyclopedic knowledge impressive nonetheless.

“Father Crespi’s missionary work brought him extremely close to the indigenous people of Ecuador, and the tribes there considered him a true friend. In turn, they entrusted the good Father with ancient artifacts as a gift of thanks. According to the stories, these items came from subterranean tunnels in the jungles. From what I have seen, the incredible artifacts bore an uncanny resemblance with Eastern civilizations. The number of items would have easily filled a large museum. The actual location of the origin of the items was never revealed and many people over the years have died at the hands of various tribal Ecuadorians in their search for these enigmatic underground tunnels, assuming they were still filled with priceless treasures.”

“Incredible….” Josh said in a low voice.”

“There is more, though. Based on his reputation, the Vatican entrusted Father Crespi to open a museum in the Salesian School at Cuenca. Up until 1960, it remained the largest museum in Ecuador. Conflict arose when Father Crespi suggested an obvious connection between the artifacts and the ancient civilizations in Babylon and Sumeria. He had no idea it would cause a furor, but in fact this supposition went against mainstream opinion of the day. A short time later, the museum was torched and most of the artifacts destroyed.”

“Holy shit!” Josh exclaimed.

“Father Crespi did manage to save a few items, but when he died in 1982, all the remaining artifacts were hidden from public view forever. It was rumored at the time that they had been shipped off to the Vatican. Much theory and unproven legend has remained attached to the items. Father Crespi alleged that the symbology and other writing on the artifacts predated the Christian tale of the Great Flood. On a wilder note, the controversial and maverick explorer, Richard Wingate was drawn to the Crespi collection as part of his search for the lost civilization of Atlantis. In the end, though, the age and origin of the so-called Crespi collection is still unknown, with the bulk of them having simply disappeared making it even harder to make these determinations.”

Dr. Harper returned to his seat behind the desk and sat, drinking deeply from his glass after his long presentation and let all of it sink in for Josh. He could see the look of astonishment in his former student’s eyes. It was the same reaction he observed from most everyone he related the story to, whether or not they were in his field. It was a little-known missive, but Harper had to agree it was one of the most entertaining and incredible tales he knew of. Josh sat quietly pondering all that Dr. Harper had shared. It was an incredible story, that was for sure. But the real question now, was why had he told this? Was the professor suggesting the script and symbols on the single sheet of paper and on the map were linked to the collection of artifacts that Father Crespi had managed to salvage?

As hard as this was to imagine, as Josh gazed into the eyes of his old professor, that sure seemed to be the implication. Otherwise, Josh thought to himself, why would he have bothered with the long lecture? All of a sudden Josh needed something stronger to drink than the soda that Benjamin Harper had offered him.

“How about a beer, Josh?” Harper asked.

Feeling as if he had stepped into another world, Josh just nodded and followed the professor out of his office as they headed for a small pub just off-campus.

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