Ben turned his eyes to Adam. "Back in 1979, when you left my office to rejoin your mother, I chuckled to myself. I knew you would never let me borrow that piece of coal, even if it was for scientific purposes. I knew that was a special piece of coal with a very special mystery locked up inside it. It was clearly a treasure, a major find that was destined to be your deep secret, something that you might share with your friends but never relinquish. To me it looked like an old coin, of course, a coin stuck in a lump of coal was unusual to say the least. I thought the coin could have been around longer than recorded history. That singular thought tweaked my curiosity like nothing else had ever done before."
Ben took a step back and angled himself against the stone wall.
"A few weeks later you had gone off to a private high school. The following year you moved out of town. I couldn't get it out of my head. Was it possible that we had our history so wrong? Was it really possible that an artifact could have been made by an intelligence older than man? The next thing I knew, I was spending my free time at the town library, looking up facts and theories about how coal is formed and especially how long it takes. I went over standard archeological texts, filling out photocopy requests, and churning through reams of microfilm and microfiche archives as my appetite for this new found exploration began to take root. I started to cut down on office appointments, giving myself more time for research. After wearing out my welcome at the local library, I made weekend trips to major libraries in Newark and New York. I did not realize it at the time, but, looking back, I was either turning into an expert in the extraordinary or turning into an obsessive fool. In any event, I became very familiar with the bizarre sorts of things that mankind has managed to stumble onto. Gradually, I became convinced that there must be other artifacts similar to Adam's buried in the rubble of human history, awaiting discovery. I expanded my searches with regular trips to the Museum of Natural History since it was local and accessible. I went there so often that the security personnel knew me by name as they often had to hustle me out at the end of the day. When books and archives were exhausted, I scoured old newspapers, journals and magazines."
Adam interjected. "It sounds to me like you went over the deep end."
Linda gave Adam the 'how could you?' look.
Ben continued, "That's quite all right. I thought so too. I did not merely collect such reports but I followed them up, seeking out the original sources, and when possible, even checking out the locations myself, seeing the objects firsthand, and talking to the people who found them. It was like I was transformed into a kind of archeological detective, examining evidence and interviewing witnesses. It was an obsession. My practice suffered greatly, but I was close to retirement, so I cut back my hours and eventually, a few years ago, cut them out altogether. I was convinced that I was on a mission and that mission had the potential to change everything about our history."
Linda asked, "What made you think that? There are all sorts of theories in archeology and human history. Some clearly have the potential to rock our world, but they're all in the mix, each with its own cadre of believers. None of that has made any difference in the scheme of things."
Ben acknowledged, "You're right. Everything you say is true … or has been true until now."
Linda held her hands out as if asking for more evidence.
"There is something so perplexing and exciting about finding and studying such objects, objects that just don't fit in the known scheme of things. I see them as clues. I had the feeling that I was on the brink of uncovering a great truth, maybe something that pointed to a hint about ourselves as a species, and what this whole thing is about."
Ben waved his arms symbolically in an arc. "I saw myself as a searcher, a seeker of the fundamental truth, if there is one. I was, and still am, convinced the clues are hidden all around us. These things need to be held up to an intelligent and unbiased scrutiny, unafraid of consequences, unfettered by historical dogma. Such an analysis has the potential to herald an entirely new consciousness for mankind."
Adam cleared his throat. He looked at Linda and had to fight to keep his eyebrows from rising. She lowered her head. He turned his gaze around, panning the small room, the single light bulb and finally, caught Ben's eyes. Ben had paused, no doubt catching the brief, silent exchange.
"It sounds pretty far-fetched doesn't it? An old doctor giving up his medical practice and going off into a hare-brained quest for some fundamental, perhaps mystical truth linked to archeological oddities."
Ben took out a handkerchief and wiped his brow before continuing.
"Hang in there, it gets better, a lot better. My endeavors were not without some result. Every so often I came across the type of finding that would send chills through me. A story of an object out of time, an ancient pictograph or hieroglyph of a technical marvel, man-made artifacts found deep in the earth, and yes, even a story of a gold chain in a lump of coal."
With that, Ben winked at Adam. "Many of these tales faded into obscurity by the passage of time and indifference. I began to notice a kind of pattern, a kind of habit peculiar to human nature. I think you'll agree that people tend to disregard the abnormal even to the point of ignoring it, in particular when it contradicts their model of history. I saved the most interesting discoveries as newspaper clippings, photocopies and printouts … even hanging them on my bedroom walls."
Adam nodded. "Yeah, I saw those, or at least, I think I did."
"Over the years, the room became filled with these images. I went there to think, to meditate. The room had become my sanctum sanctorum, a most holy and private refuge where I contemplated these ignored, nevertheless significant discoveries. Ranging from obvious examples, like the incongruous age of the Sphinx to the sublime, like the discovery of a metal bowl in solid granite stone. This scavenger hunt of mine lasted nearly twenty years. It had become a way of life for me, researching and following up leads, interviews, traveling and pasting together the bits and pieces that might make up some kind of story, or a thread of a larger story. That's the way it was until a few weeks ago, when I discovered something quite by accident which changed everything."
Ben paused and said, "I'm sorry. It must sound like I'm ranting. You must understand that, with the exception of Hedda, I have not discussed this with anyone."
Adam responded, "Ben. I think we understand. But there're some crazies out there looking for us, probably looking for my medallion, and you haven't come to the point yet. And you're not exactly coming across any more rational than they seem to be."
Linda jabbed Adam in the ribs.
Wincing, Adam clarified, "What I mean is … Ben, how come you're not dead and what's the point of telling us all about your obsession?"
Linda punched Adam in the shoulder and drew herself away saying, "Adam. Don't be so rude. I'm sure Ben has a reason."
Apparently, unaffected by Adam's impatience, Ben continued, "Before 'I come to the point,' I am going to tell you a little story."
Adam's shoulders dropped and he slouched back into this seat in clear disappointment. Ben forged on. "In my meanderings I did come across a handful of really interesting items. And I'm not talking about pottery and nails and other so-called modern odds and ends found in archeologically embarrassing locations. No, it's not the stuff that seems a bit out of place that caught my eye. It's the stuff that is outrageously out of place that really demands attention. I can deal with a nail found in a piece of quartz or a metal cup found deep in some rock strata. It's possible that our ancestors were around a bit earlier than we currently believe, and that even these early versions were very capable in creating technological wonders. No, that's not the stuff that creeps me out."
Ben looked down at the dirt floor, placed his hands deep within his pockets and began pacing. "I sent you the news clipping describing the Mrs. Culp find. I assume you got that?" Ben returned Adam's nod with quick dip of his head. "What did you think of that story?"
"It shook me up a bit. As you know, it was very similar to my own find."
"And why did it shake you up?"
"Mrs. Culp found a gold chain in coal—coal that was estimated to be at least a hundred million years old. That's hard to conceive of."
"Yes, it is. You're shook up because of the age. It's one thing to consider archeological finds reflecting intelligence on the order of hundreds of thousands of years, and it's quite another to consider objects that might be hundreds of millions of years old. In the latter case, well, that could be a simple misconception about ancient man's abilities, however, in the former case, well it's obvious that man wasn't around when these objects were left behind."
Adam found himself nodding in agreement.
His own findings went even further as they strongly suggested a technology which not only pre-dated mankind, but had yet to be achieved in the present day. Of course, that was a conclusion drawn on lab analysis.
Adam said, "Maybe these conundrums were the result of a limited understanding of evolution on this planet, or how long it took for coal to form, or maybe they're just fraud."
"Points well taken. You know, I went to Morrisonville. I visited with the librarian there, who told me the story of the Culps. Mr. Martin Culp was an entrepreneur who had ventured into a variety of agricultural businesses in other parts of Illinois before settling in town to start the Morrisonville Times in 1887. His wife, Sarah, worked at home as a seamstress. The paper was a success from the start, and the two led respected and comfortable lives. In 1891, when Sarah found the gold chain, there was no need for drumming up extra sales of the paper by splashing the story on its front pages. In fact, Sarah was a very quiet person, more interested in her needlework than town gossip. When she found that chain, notoriety was the last thing she wanted, and it was upon her insistence that the news article be kept to a very modest length and the repercussions of the find kept to an understated minimum. It turns out that a couple of years later she gave up the chain to a cousin who lived outside of town. And, as the story goes, the chain was eventually lost outright or in a fire."
Ben stopped in front of Adam, and bent over to face him squarely.
"So, is there anything about the story that bothers you, Adam?"
Taken aback, Adam paused a moment before rejoining. "It's odd that Sarah took so little interest in the chain. It's odd that she gave it away. And it's odd that it was lost."
Ben's mouth began to curl up at the corners.
During the soliloquy Adam had gone from perplexed, to amused, back to perplexed and now headed straight into down-right pissed off. "Ben, what's all this got to do with anything? So they lost the chain? So what? What about you? I still don't understand how it is that you're alive, when I plainly saw you dead. Can you explain that?"
The smile finally erupted as Ben placed both hands on Adam's shoulders. "There's only one logical explanation. You never saw me. I wasn't there."
"Come on. I know what I saw."
After a brief moment, Ben replied, "Adam, you also claim that I disappeared."
"Uh, yes, that's right. While I was in the house, someone took your body …"
"Did anything else unusual happen?"
"There was one more thing. While I was outside ... I was outside for a few minutes. I had gone over to the garage to double check on you, that is, your body, when I discovered you, I mean the body, was gone. When I returned to your bedroom, the walls were bare. Only a few minutes had passed. It seems impossible that someone took all those clippings off the walls."
Still clenching Adam's shoulders, Ben shook his head from side to side. "I believe the clippings are still there, Adam. Nothing was moved. Nothing was taken."
Adam stared at Ben as he ran through a mental checklist of the previous day's harrowing discoveries. He was about to begin arguing that fact, when Ben stepped back and said, "Maybe there's an explanation. Recall the Mrs. Culp story. Her story was not unique. In my travels I have chased down a few other similar findings. I noticed that whenever a particularly tantalizing find came up, the object involved was often lost or destroyed. Newspaper reports generally regarded these as frauds. Many probably were. However, as I collected stories that had a certain level of believability, a pattern began to emerge. First, a perfectly respectable person with no particular reason to lie finds the object. A few people see it, and the original person either keeps it or eventually donates it to a local museum. Regardless, within a short time, it becomes unnoticed, misplaced, lost, or even destroyed in an accident. Skeptics would be quick to point out that a fraudulent find is better kept away from inquiring minds, and the mystery is even better kept when it becomes the subject of a series of misfortunes which ultimately end in its regrettable disappearance. However, a very different idea occurred to me."
Ben locked his eyes on Adam and moved closer. "Adam, would you show us your medallion?"
Adam reached between the folds of his buttoned shirt front, and suddenly began patting his chest in alarm. "It's not here."
Linda reminded him, "Adam. Don't you remember? In the alley by the museum you put it in your pocket."
He checked his pockets, and his face contorted in disbelief. "It's not here."
Linda helped him and they both went through his shirt, trousers and jacket. Nothing. No medallion.
"I can't believe this. Maybe I dropped it on the way here … outside somewhere, maybe it's just outside this door."
Adam stood up and began fumbling with the metal bar, when Ben spoke up, "Don't bother. I doubt it's here."
Adam turned his head and asked with a suspicious tone, "How can you be so sure? Do you know where it is?"
Ben answered in a measured pitch, enunciating each word to insure its clarity. "Adam. You have hidden the medallion and only you know where it is."
The statement came across with conviction and, for a moment, Adam was speechless. His mind fought against a rising rage.
How could he know what I may have done with the medallion?
Adam was about to respond, when Linda interrupted. "Shhhhh."
Everyone turned to see her standing by the barred door with a finger to her lips. "I think I hear something. I think they may have come back."
She pressed her head against the door.
Adam asked, "What is it?"
She closed her eyes and lifted a hand, splaying her fingers in a motion for more time. Seconds of silence felt like hours. The back of her neck glistened in the scant light. Linda pressed her ear to the door even harder. After a few more grueling moments, Hedda angled closer to Linda, and was about to speak when Linda placed her hand over Hedda's mouth.
Linda whispered, "I think someone, or something is on the other side of this door. Maybe it's listening, just like I am."
With an abrupt tilt of her head Linda motioned the group to get out of the room. It was as if they all had been waiting for a signal and they moved as one, with Ben and Hedda leading the way. Adam held Linda's arm as they exited through the doorway into a tunnel on the far side of the room. She broke away from Adam, preferring to take up the rear of the slow motion caravan, giving the barred door one last look before joining the others. The group slowly made their way through a poorly lit winding passageway. Adam thought the faster they got out of here the better. He hadn't realized just how claustrophobic Linda was, or in fact, had become. He found himself trying to push the image of the door out of his mind, an incongruous image of a huge furry creature pressing its clawed hands against the other side of the door. The day was turning out to be a real adventure.
He looked back at Linda just as the tunnel began to get lighter up ahead. She nodded and grinned. She looked happy to be rid of the ghost they left, ghosts that were keen to avoid the light.
Ben turned to the group. "We're coming out. You can relax now."
Only moments after the group emerged from the escape tunnel, the heavy metal brace which was lying across the secret door first trembled, then lifted on its own, and fell to the floor. The door gave a low pitched groan as it swung open, revealing the black maw of the room behind it and nothing else.