Hedda appeared at the kitchen doorway. "Quick. Ya need to get out 'o here now. Herman's limo just pulled up outside. "The three rose as one. They followed Hedda to the head the stairway. She turned and pointed at a window. "Ya can get out that way. The fire escape'll take ya down to the backyard where your car is parked."
Adam asked, "But what about you?" It was then that Adam noticed the automatic in Hedda's hand. His eyes narrowed.
"Don't worry 'bout me. I got a score to settle with that bastard, and it might as well be now."
Before Adam could reply he heard glass shattering on the wooden floor below, followed by a door bell jingle.
"Get goin'. I got some customers downstairs that need tendin' to."
Adam hustled the other two out the window and onto the railing of the fire escape. He handed Linda the keys and said, "Get down to the car and wait for me."
Hedda slipped her gun into the folds of her dressing gown and took her time descending the staircase. When her line of sight cleared the ceiling of the first floor she saw the outline of a man in an overcoat silhouetted by the light streaming in from the open doorway. He stood perfectly still, staring at the dark recesses at the rear of the expansive display room. He leaned forward as if waiting for his eyes to adjust to the unlit, dim interior. She moved slowly, trying to avoid being detected.
"Hedda, Is that you?"
She knew Herman's voice. Fighting down an urge to answer, she steadily made her way to the base of the stairs.
"Now I see you. It is you, is it not? I have come here for the disk. Dr. Dove's car is in the rear, so I know he is here. My people are surrounding the place as I speak."
Hedda took a few more steps toward Herman. He carried something in one hand. As he held it to his side, reflected light glinted off the blue-black barrel of a Luger.
"What're ya thinkin'? You're trespassing, breakin' and enterin'."
"Hedda, I have no argument with you. I just want that artifact returned to me."
"No argument with me? You bastard!" Tears welled up in Hedda's eyes as she recalled the day Luke died. "It wasn't enough that you took that damn treasure for yerself, sendin' twelve miners to their watery graves while ya did it. Later you made sure Luke and Mihal got the worse shifts … the most dangerous jobs. You had to keep 'em outta the way, keep 'em quiet … and then another damn accident, and they were gone."
Hedda's eyes became watery. Herman's shadowy figure began to drift.
"You are a crazy old woman. Get out of my way."
"Yeah, you were cleared by the company, but you and I know different."
While Hedda reached up with her free hand to grasp her eyeglasses and wipe at her eyes, Herman snarled, "So what does it matter? Your husband was a loser … and so are you."
In that instant Herman moved forward and raised his gun, an action which precipitated several nearly simultaneous events. Three shots rang out. Hedda stared at the staggering figure before her as it crumpled to the floor with a sigh. She dropped her gun, fell to her knees and clutched her thigh. A loud moan brought Adam racing to her from the base of the stairway. A red stain oozed through her gown.
"Hedda. Are you all right? Were you hit?"
She slumped to the floor and curled up in a fetal position rocking back and forth. Her hands grasped a leg and were covered in blood. She tried to answer but could only breath out a groan.
Sirens approached. Then Adam heard a car, the limo, start up and screech away. He began to shake as the rush of adrenaline pulsed through his body. He had never fired a gun at anyone before. He ran over to inspect Herman's prostrate form, rolling it over. The overcoat opened to reveal a white cotton shirt with a large dark stain in the center. Herman had died instantly. He pocketed his gun and turned to return to Hedda. The smooth wooden floor was broken by a patch of upraised splinters surrounding a small round hole in the floor.
Was that Hedda's shot … or mine?
Officer Bloustein sipped at his Styrofoam cup yet again, apparently using the action to gather his thoughts. He carefully replaced it next to his keyboard, looked hard at the screen, and then at Adam seated across the desk. "It looks like I have everything I need. I still don't get why Mr. Borman pulled his gun."
"He seemed out of control … yelling something about an artifact and that Hedda better hand it over or else."
"Yeah. You already told us that. Shooting at Hedda doesn't make sense."
"He seemed very angry. Is she going to be okay?"
"The EMT boys said it was a flesh wound. No major blood vessels, no bones."
"Thank God. She was just trying to defend herself."
"Yeah. You told us that too. We'll get her official statement at the hospital."
"What about the guys in the limo?"
"We have an APB out on that limo. We know it well. It's just a matter of time."
And just a matter of time before you visit Herman's little farmhouse and make some more interesting discoveries.
Adam had been careful not to mention the kidnapping and the attempted murder last night. Right now he just needed some time. Bloustein had also asked about the missing policemen. Their last call came from the mine, and their abandoned patrol car was found near its entrance. Everyone knew the mine belonged to Borman, however, as there was no obvious connection between Adam and the mine, the questions appeared to be routine.
"Then we're done here?" Adam asked.
"For now. But I want you to stay someplace local. Let me know where. I don't want you leaving town until we get the reports from the coroner's office and forensics. It may take a few days to get everything straight and I may have some more questions for you. Here's my number."
Adam took the card. The police report would say that Hedda defended herself, that two shots were fired, the fatal one striking Herman Borman in the heart. The coroner's report would corroborate Adam's story.
But the forensics report could be another matter. Ballistics might point to a third shooter, and we don't want to forget the hole in the floor.
Linda and Alpha were long gone. After the shooting and before the police arrived he gave his gun to Linda. They agreed to regroup at the Starlight. In this way explanations could be kept to a minimum and the challenge of explaining Alpha to the police was happily avoided. It was late afternoon when Adam was finally released from officer Bloustein's interrogation.
The early evening news hissed through wavering shades of green and orange, slightly out of synch with the anchorman's undulating mouth. Adam stepped out of an incredibly refreshing shower, but was still worn out. Donning the clothes he wore for the past several days did nothing to revitalize, rather it had the effect of reminding him of the twisted situation in which he and Linda were ensnared. Each step seemed to take all his concentration. He passed Alpha seated on the edge of a bed and angled himself into the single desk chair in their room.
He had driven his car to the Starlight Motel escorted by the police. Linda and Alpha arrived at the motel by foot shortly afterward. They all knew that the half-truths Adam told the police would eventually unravel, maybe even by this afternoon. Their time at the motel was going to be short.
Linda held out a box of cold pizza. "Here. Have a slice. It'll do you wonders."
Adam gratefully accepted it. "What a crappy TV. I guess the digital world hasn't quite arrived at the Starlight."
"Excuse me," said Alpha, "My fault." Alpha's left hand moved over his glove and the image cleared up.
"What does the glove do?" asked Adam.
"It is a directional electromagnetic device which allows the user to attract or repel anything made of iron or any other ferrous-like metal."
That explains nothing.
At this point both Adam and Linda began to accept such technological eccentricities from their guest and in doing so, accepted that he really was not from the neighborhood. Implicitly, they had also come to believe Alpha's story surrounding the disk.
"What are we going to do now?" asked Linda.
The question verged on the rhetorical. But before anyone could take a shot at an answer, everyone's attention was diverted by a story unfolding on the twenty-inch screen. A reporter had announced that she was at the Brookhaven Laboratories, and that a statement was forthcoming from one of their leading scientists. She started to say that it dealt with the discovery of a prehistoric artifact when a mob of reporters spilled out of a building behind her. Adam recognized the building. The broadcast cut to a different view, a close-up of the reporters gathered around a scientist. It was Percy Wild. In his hands he held printouts and a photo.
"Ladies and gentlemen, by now you know that we have analyzed an artifact millions of years old. Further investigation has revealed that the artifact, a disk made of gold, contains data. The ramifications of the findings are staggering and will change the way we view ourselves as a species forever."
A reporter in the crowd yelled, "What kind of data?"
Another asked, "Have you analyzed the data?"
Percy took his time answering, which had a two-fold effect—giving the mob a chance to simmer down, and hyping the drama, something that Adam guessed was the principle objective of the interview.
"Quite, quite. We can announce today that we have found an artifact estimated to be millions of years old that contains a coding which appears to be a copy of human DNA."
For a moment the crowd became silent and then, as if a trigger on a bomb was pulled, the mob exploded, drawing closer to Percy, jostling his body and jabbing at his face with microphones and cameras. In spite of being surrounded by a riot of reporters, he managed to go on, happily screaming into the nearest set of microphones.
"These are pictures of the artifact and printouts of the analyses. We are currently studying the data with the help of scientists from around the world. These findings will revolutionize our thinking about the origins of humans on this planet, and perhaps the origins of life itself…"
Percy was abruptly swept away, either by his colleagues or by the force of the crowd surrounding him. The camera shot cut back to the network anchor who quickly closed with a promise of more information as it became available.
Linda continued staring at the screen even as a commercial came on. "I guess the cat's out of the bag," she said.
Adam said, "The reporters will dig out the source of the artifact, and then we'll be in the news and the whole sordid story will catch up with us."
"It is time I make my position clear," Alpha said. "As I pointed out earlier, it will be your decision to give me the disk or not."
Adam asked, "But you said that your expedition could use the information on the disk. Why don't you just take it?"
"Our collective mandate is one of discovery and respect. We will only take the disk if you are willing to give it to us."
Adam thought a moment, reached into his pocket and brought out the medallion. "This may be of great value to us, here on Earth, but it seems it might serve an even greater purpose in your quest."
Alpha said, "There is one more decision you will need to make."
Linda and Adam looked into a pair of enigmatic yellow orbs.
"And that is whether you would like to join us on this expedition. I offer you both the opportunity to become part of our quest, to search for the origins of our human race, to seek out the reason for our being. In short, to confront our Makers and obtain the answer to the fundamental question of all time … why we were created."
That was a bombshell. It was the Krakatoa of proposals. It left both Adam and Linda speechless and nearly breathless. A tidal wave of questions inundated Adam's mind. He gasped, "You have room for us? How long do you think it will take?" There were many more questions—the problem was that they all tried surfacing at the same time.
Alpha said, "We can spend hours going through the details. There is room on the ship. After a short training period you will be placed in stasis. You will be integrated into our automated duty schedule and be awakened periodically. The schedule will allow you to meet others and to study the data collected during the journey. When we reach our destination everyone will be revived."
Linda asked, "And the trip … how long would we be gone?"
"Our current estimates place the home of the Makers approximately two hundred light-years distant."
Adam and Linda looked at each other. "Afterwards, we plan to return everyone to their respective planets … to report on our findings. In your case the round trip is likely to take about five hundred years."
And I thought it was a one way trip.
Alpha looked at the astonished faces and added, "It is a decision I expect will need some time to consider. However, as you know, we have very little time. Might I suggest that you talk it over with your family and friends. If you choose to join us, you must do so with full realization of the commitment. It will indeed be a long voyage, but rest assured that you will have comfortable quarters and your ageing process will be slowed considerably by both relativistic effects and biological stasis. We should journey back to your home town this afternoon before the police are aware you are gone. We can meet again tonight. I will need your decision then."
"What if only one of us wishes to go?" Linda asked.
"Then you must both remain. It is our policy to add crew in pairs, compatible pairs. From what I have observed, you are such a pair."
Adam looked at Linda.
Was she smiling or was that a smirk?
Adam and Linda agreed to return to their Scranton suburbs. They further agreed on a meeting place if indeed both decided to accept the invitation—a secluded portion of the Schill campus, behind the practice football fields at 11:00 p.m.
The trip back was uneventful and silent. Dolefully silent. Adam's suspicious nature insured they would not be followed. After taking a circuitous route with many unnecessary turns, he dropped off Linda at her home about a mile from his own, and promised to call her later in the evening for her decision.
She handed him his gun. "I won't be needing this."
Minutes later he bade Alpha a goodnight from the brick stoop of his own home. As Alpha disappeared into the evening, Adam found himself wondering if what happened this week was not some daydream fantasy; that he would suddenly wake up and find himself lecturing organic chemistry. He was staring at the front door when it opened. His mother promptly scolded him for staying away so long without a word. She questioned him about the dark stains around his jacket collar, and whether he had been hurt. He hugged her and held her with his eyes shut tight, taking in the sweet smell of her and, for a moment, welcoming a flood of long-forgotten childhood memories. He was so happy that he hardly noticed that she kept up the chastisement as they entered the house.
The door clacked shut and she said, "I can heat up some soup, or maybe you'd like a sandwich too? There's meatloaf in the fridge."
It was suppertime.