Lara's laptop screen winked on casting long shadows across the dark oak paneling of the study. A bookshelf standing against the far wall housing scores of large hardbound books with titles such as The Maya, Anthropology of the Sudan, and Baxter’s Guide to Egyptology was barely illumined. Through the windows a lazy wind could be seen passing through the graceful, moonlit Lombardy poplars.
The sound of the wind was punctuated by light clicks and clacks as she placed heavy fingers on the keys. She paused while a search engine ran across cyberspace procuring the desired information. The laptop’s fan whirred, picked up speed, and then came to a rest.
“Dr. Conrad Montgomery,” she muttered to no one in particular while rubbing fingertips over puffy eyes.
“You’re different than I’d imagined,” said Dr. Montgomery.
“I look like hell,” Lara replied. Her eyes were bloodshot and sat above unsightly dark circles. Her face was pale and waxen. Both face and body were equally rigid with a kind of tension that bordered on collapse.
A slight smile. “I wouldn’t go that far. How long have you been experiencing these symptoms Miss Croft?”
She plucked absently at a loose string poking out of the deep-green, tweed upholstery of the armchair she was sitting in. She reflected that this office, so well appointed with its comfortable chairs, crème-colored wallpaper and soft lighting, was probably designed to put people to sleep. Unfortunately, it wasn’t working.
“Twelve days.” The reply was immediate.
“I see.” Dr. Montgomery made a note on a legal pad resting on his tan slacks. “What is the cause do you think?”
"You don't read the news?"
"I do. I just want to hear it from your point of view."
Lara related about the wreck, the darkness, and the abduction of her friend.
“I see.” Montgomery shifted his weight in the armchair. “Well, insomnia can occur following periods of intense physical duress and shock. You’ve experienced both obviously.”
“Obviously.” Lara muttered.
“I’m going to write you a prescription for a sleeping pill—.”
Lara shook her head. “Your website says you do hypnosis.”
Montgomery paused before responding. “What do you want me to hypnotize you for?”
“Shock is not my problem. Believe me when I tell you, I can deal with trauma. I can’t sleep because every time I close my eyes I see the darkness. I want you to find the source of that darkness.”
“You mean what you saw during your dive?”
Lara nodded wearily. “I feel like it…takes me over. I can’t breathe. My head begins to hurt.”
“Well, Miss Croft, regression therapy helps things the mind has forgotten or repressed to surface. What you’ve described…it sounds like you want an exorcist not a hypnotist.”
Lara let out a long sigh and stared up at the ceiling.
Afternoon sunlight filtered by the tall Lombardy poplars trickled through the large kitchen windows and played on the black and white tile floor. A sturdy table with four stout chairs stood against the adjacent wall. Opposite them were a stove and a refrigerator. The air was heavy with the aroma of green onion and candied almonds. Through the corridor that led from the kitchen to the main hall the sound of footsteps was heard.
Lara entered the kitchen and sat down heavily in one of the chairs facing the windows. She envied the sunlight. It doesn’t have problems sleeping. From the pantry door opposite the large windows emerged Lara’s butler, Winston, dressed in his typical black suit. He raised his snow-white eyebrows inquiringly and Lara simply shook her head. Momentary hope disappeared from his creased face and he turned to busy himself with the kettle on the stove. “The post came while you were out,” Winston said quietly.
The mail was mostly unattractive. Bills and solicitations as well as one check from her publisher containing royalties from her recently released book Conquests of the Sixteenth Century. Two letters, however, succeeded in piquing her interest. One was from Dr. Thomas Woodson, her friend and mentor at the British Museum. The other had no return address but was postmarked Washington D.C. A sharp whistle sounded from the stove as Lara opened the first letter. Winston cleared the table and set down cups and saucers.
“What does Thomas have to say?” Winston inquired as he poured the tea for Lara and then himself.
“James is back from Brazil. He wants to see me about a development with the artifact. He doesn’t say what it is though.”
“Probably because he wants to see you.” The corners of Winston’s mouth turned upward ever so slightly.
“Probably.” Lara glanced at him askance and smiled thinly. Winston sat opposite her and sipped thoughtfully at his tea while perusing The Daily Telegraph. Lara reread the letter while sipping her own tea. It had been almost a year since she had seen James Woodson. This was only partly due to time constraints. During her research in Brazil James had been as close as Peru yet something had always come up. Or she had made something come up.
“This Hunter fellow sure knows how to say what he’s saying.” Winston had found an opportune time to interrupt the thought process.
“Daniel Hunter. He writes for the Telegraph. He’s a smart one. I enjoy reading his stuff.”
“Ah, I see,” she said without seeing at all. Her mind was mulling over things like sleep deprivation and James Woodson. Lara washed down a biscuit with the last of her tea. “Well I’m done.” Lara stood and left the kitchen. Winston said nothing but she could tell he was watching her. Just like a father. Upstairs in her study the same sunlight was shifting over the bookcases. Lara sat at the desk and reluctantly opened the top right drawer. From it she produced a large manila envelope. The pictures that tumbled out were not new. She’d looked at them every day since the day the Interpol lab had deemed them “untraceable.” The man in them was pleading with her: just give them what they want.
“It’s not that easy.” Lara whispered as she slid her index finger along the edge of the photo. She would go see James tomorrow, the past notwithstanding. Lara slid the photographs back into the envelope and locked them in the desk drawer. As she sat up a block of white on the black desk blotter caught her eye. It was the second letter. She had carried it upstairs almost without thinking. Lara pulled a letter opener from the top left drawer.
The park was mostly deserted. The sun had set hours before and early autumn clouds began to obscure the moon. A jogger passed over the green and stopped to rest at a bench situated against the hedge. A shadow slid out of the darkness behind the bench.
“Can you spare some change?” the shadow asked.
“I’m sorry. I left my wallet at home,” the jogger replied. The shadow rounded the bench and sat down next to the jogger.
“What is it, Ryan?”
“It’s been confirmed. She found it,” said Ryan. He bent down and retied his shoes.
“Does Carlos know?”
“He was there. But she didn’t have it.”
“We’ll need to contact her.”
“I’ve sent a letter requesting a meeting.”
“Have you heard back?”
The shadow was silent for a moment. “I’ll be here in London for the next twelve days. Keep me updated.”
Ryan nodded and left the bench, jogging back the way he had come.
The immense glass ceiling in the British Museum’s entry hall was splotched with fat drops of rain. The vast circular hall was mostly empty save a few tourists and scholarly-looking people. One could not help but feel little in such a building. Lara brushed a few drops from the collar of her white blouse while walking slowly to the reading room. She was wearing a dark navy dress suit she normally reserved for lecturing. Her chestnut hair was tied tightly in a long braid which swished back and forth across her back as she walked.
The reading room was more occupied. Amid the smattering of tourists were two men in suits standing at the far wall: Thomas and James Woodson. Thomas was a tall man, almost six foot four inches. Despite his years he still kept his thin frame ramrod straight, a holdover from his years as a Royal Marine in the Great War. His head was crowned by a laurel wreath of gray-white stubble. His face was a paradox. The intelligent silver-blue eyes, the mouth and even the creases of his face could convey anger one moment and warmth the next. Lara had seen it happen during exams while his student.
James was both like and unlike his uncle. His hair was a thick, sandy blond that remained disheveled even after combing. Lara had come to realize he preferred it that way. While he had a mind that rivaled his uncle's his carriage did not exude the same look of intelligence. At times he would show up to lectures in just khakis and a polo shirt. Even now Lara could tell his shirt was not pressed and his shoes were not shined. Once again, he preferred it that way. He shared the same silver-blue eyes and though he worked hard to change it, he shared the same thin frame. Some would say he looked delicate but Lara knew better. She had seen him many times with a week's growth of beard, caked in sand, down on all fours scraping around a dig in Tunis or Alexandria or Tulum or wherever work took them.
“Lara!” Thomas Woodson called out disturbing another elderly man hunched over a book.
“Tommy,” Lara smiled and made her way to the pair. “How are you?”
“The question is,” Thomas assumed his serious face. “How are you?”
“I’m fine.” Lara tried not to sound weary.
“Hello, Lara. You look tired.” It was James. His voice was subdued, betraying nothing.
“Hello, James.” She whispered and a long pause ensued.
It was the elder Dr. Woodson who shattered the silence. “Shall we?” he motioned towards the corridor that led back to the private area of the museum. As the trio walked, the uncomfortable silence resumed. No one bothered to glance at the fine works of art hanging on either side of the corridor. Once in the privacy of Thomas’ office they spoke again.
“I’m so sorry to hear about Paul,” James began. “That’s why…partly why I came back.”
“James managed to identify the origin of the artifact,” Thomas interrupted. That was one thing Lara admired about Thomas, he just came out and said it. It was a skill she had learned from him.
“When you asked me to pick up where you’d left off you’ll remember we knew it started in Porto Seguro and then went on toward Lisbon, but we didn’t know how it showed up in Porto Seguro in the first place.”
“Yes I remember.” Lara folded her arms across her chest.
“A group of witchdoctors put it there.”
“Yes. They started out as slaves shipped from Africa to Brazil by the Portuguese. They practiced a religion called macumba. Supposedly they summoned seven demons from the other world and captured them in an idol. They placed the idol in Porto Seguro to torment the Portuguese slave traders.”
Lara’s rational mind was filtering out the facts from the myth. Demons and such were fantasy. But in her heart she felt that horribly familiar darkness expand. “And the Portuguese didn’t like that.”
“Someone exposed the plot. The Portuguese hunted and killed the witchdoctors. They abolished the practice of macumba and confiscated all of their articles of worship to be burned.”
“But they sent the idol back to Lisbon.” Lara muttered. The pieces were beginning to come together.
“They fell for the ruse,” Thomas interjected. “In their minds sending the idol back to the king was a good political move. It showed that the colonies were producing something.”
Lara lowered her head, turning the facts over slowly in her mind. It was a skill she had honed while at Oxford. All good research came to naught unless it was carefully assembled. Bits of information were just trivia to Lara. Knowledge had to be assembled. I’m missing a piece. “This still leaves two very important questions unanswered, why do Paul’s kidnappers want it so badly? And why do they need me to get it for them?”
“Whatever the reason,” said James. “You need to recover it.”
Lara began to pace back and forth, her braid keeping time. “Pulling up to the harbor in São Miguel with a dead Portuguese fisherman didn’t really help my reputation in the Azores. If I had the capability I would recover this one but I’m not in any position to—.”
“Make some calls—.” James interrupted.
“I have,” Lara protested. Her voice rose slightly. Just leave it be James, please.
“There’s something else. Isn’t there?” Thomas said quietly from the corner of the office where he had seated himself next to the aquarium. Lara turned to him and then stared at the floor. She felt like a little girl again. A little girl caught misbehaving. But she hadn’t misbehaved, she was just afraid.
“The only survivor of the wreck said God was in the storm that sunk it. Maybe this artifact is best left where it lies.”
“And what about Paul?” James queried.
“Someone from American intelligence has contacted me about that. I’m meeting him tonight.”
“Lara you’ve never walked away from a pursuit like this. What’s with you?”
“Things change, James. I’ve changed.” If the younger Dr. Woodson realized she was talking about more than her professional life he didn’t show it. “I should go.”
“I just want to help, that’s all.”
Lara nodded her assent and left the office.